To give a clear picture of the preparations for that fiesta, one should be able to draw with strokes as swift as the horses that galloped up and down the valley at the behest of riders whose minds titillated with whatever phase of the fiesta appealed to them most; and paint with colors as vivid as were the dreams of the women, from the peonas in the huts to the senoritas and senoras murmuring behind the shelter of their vines.
One would need tell of those who went boldly into the mountains to find a grizzly bear and bring it alive and unhurt to the pen, which the peons, with feverish zeal and much chattering amongst themselves, were building close beside the smallest corral.
A great story it would make–the tale of that hunt! A man came back from it with a forearm torn sickeningly, to show how brave he had been. And the bear came also–a great, gaunt she-bear with two cubs whimpering beside her in the cage, and in her eyes a sullen hunger for the giant redwoods that stood so straight and strong together upon the steep slopes while they sang crooningly the songs she knew of old, and a glowing hatred for her captors.
A story that would make! A story in which Jerry Simpson and Tige played valiant part and bore more than their share of the danger, and became heroes to those who went with them.
One would need to picture somehow the bubbling excitement of Teresita, while she planned and replanned her festal garments, and tell how often she found it necessary to ride with Jack across the valley to talk the matter over with the “pretty Senora” Simpson, or to the Mission San Jose to see what Rosa had at last decided to wear.
Then, there would be the solemn conferences in the kitchen, between Margarita and the senora herself; conferences that had to do with cakes and preserves and the like, with the ninos getting in every one’s way, while they listened and smacked lips over the very naming of so many good things to eat.
One would need see the adobe corral that was to be transformed into an amphitheater where were hammering and clatter from sunrise till dark, without even a pause for midday siesta amongst those lazy peons who would sleep over their cigarettes, though the padres stood over them predicting the end of the world the next moment.
Well in the foreground of the picture would be Jack, to be sure; Jack riding far afield upon Surry, whom he had found the best horse for his purpose upon the whole ranch; lassoing cattle to get his hand in, practising certain little twists of his own invention, and teaching Surry to know without fail just what certain signals meant, and obey instantly and implicitly when they were given.
Sometimes, when the senorita was not in a perverse mood, she would ride with him and applaud his dexterity; at other times she would boast of Jose’s marvelous skill, and pity Jack in advance for the defeat which she pretended was inevitable. Whether she pitied or praised, she seemed always sincere for the moment, so that Jack gave up any lingering hope of knowing how she really felt about it, and contented himself with the determination to deflect all the pity towards Jose when the time came, and keep the praise for himself.
There would be other contests; and scarce a day passed wherein no horse loped heavily up the slope and stopped with heaving flanks in the patio, while its rider dismounted and bowed low before Don Andres, giving news of some vaquero who wished his name to be listed as a contestant in the riding, or the lassoing and tying of steers, or in the bull-fight, perchance.
But there was no third name offered in the riata contest for which Solano was announced as a prize. All up and down the valley; at the ranches, on the trails when men met and stopped to talk awhile, and around the camp-fires of the rodeo they talked of it; and many bets would have been laid upon the outcome, had not all men been of one mind. When Jose was not present, or Dade, or the more outspoken of the Picardo vaqueros, always they spoke of it as the duelo riata, and took it for granted that it would be fought to the death. Thus are secrets kept from men who can read from their own natures the truth! The men of Santa Clara lowered lids and smiled whenever they spoke of it as a contest, for as a duel had the word first gone forth from the exultant lips of Manuel; as a duel would it still remain among themselves, spite of the fiesta and the prize that was offered, and the reiteration that it was but sport.
One should picture the whole valley for the background; a sunken paradise of greenery, splotched with color, made alive with bird-songs and racing cloud-shadows on the grass; with the wooded slopes of the Santa Cruz mountains closing in upon the west and sheltering it from the sweeping winds from off the ocean, and the grassy hills rising high and rugged on the east, giving rich pasturage to the cattle and all the wild things that fed there.
When it was complete–that picture–then might one weep to be there in the midst of it all! For there would be much laughter, and the love-making would make young pulses beat fast to think upon. There would be dancing, and the tinkle of guitars and mandolins, and a harp or two to beat a harmonious surf-song beneath the waves of melody. There would be feasting, with whole beeves roasted over pits which the peons were already digging in their dreams; with casks of wine from the don’s own vineyard to wash down the juicy morsels. There would be all that throughout one long, moonlit night, with the day of sports to think back upon. And through the night they would talk of the duelo riata between two men who loved one little senorita who laughed much and cared little, said certain wise senoras, and nodded their heads while they said it.
What if some hearts were bitter over the prospect? From Santa Barbara, even, were they coming to the fiesta! (Gustavo had the news from a peon who came straight through from Paso Robles on an errand for his master.)
What if Dade, thinking and thinking until his brain was dizzy, lay long hours awake in his blankets and stared up at the star-sprinkle in the purple night-sky, trying to find a path that would lead to peace? The senorita lay awake also, thinking smilingly that she had nearly finished the embroidery upon the bodice she meant to wear, and that the pretty senora had promised to do her black hair in a new and wonderful way that should smart with envy the eyes of all the other senoritas when they saw; and that the senora her mother had reluctantly promised that she should wear the gold chain with the rubies glowing along every little thumb-length of it; thinking also, perhaps, of how she had made the Senor Jack’s eyes grow dark and then flash anger-lights, when she taunted him again about going to the wise old woman at the Mission San Jose for a charm to make the riata fly true!
What if the old don, seeing also that trouble hung like a vulture over the feast, paced uneasily up and down the vine-hidden veranda, while he meditated upon the follies of youth? The young steers that had been driven in for the roasting-pits were trampling uneasily about the little corral where they had been put to fatten; and Gustavo walked with his head thrown back upon his shoulders that he might read that open page which was the sky, and to any anxious ones who asked, he had but one answer and that a comforting one:
“The day will be a day of sunshine, with linnets singing in the trees and the smallest breeze to cool the cheek.” The anxious ones, hearing so good an augury, would pass on, their thoughts upon the day-of-days and on their lips a little smile.
LOST! TWO HASTY TEMPERS
“One more throw, and then no more until the contest,” Jack announced placatingly, when he spied a lone bull standing just before a thicket of chaparral and staring at them with stupid resentment that his siesta had been disturbed. “A kiss for luck, little one!”
Riata coiled in his hand, Jack rode closer and leaned to the girl, his eyes and his voice caressing, his lips quivering for the kiss he craved. It had come to kisses long before then, and to half promises, when her mood was tender, that she would marry her blue-eyed one–sometime.
Just now her mood was not tender. Jack was not to blame, nor was the pretty Senora Simpson, although Mrs. Jerry was quite innocently and unconsciously the cause. Mrs. Jerry had a headache, that day, and a fit of the blues; and from the first moment when Teresita had entered the cabin she had felt a lack of warmth in the pretty senora’s manner that had piqued her, who had lived upon adoration all her life. Mrs. Jerry had even shown a disposition to shirk keeping her promise anent the new way of doing Teresita’s hair.
She said that she didn’t think she’d go to the fiesta, after all–which was like calmly telling a priest that one does not, after all, feel as if heaven is worth striving for.
Teresita failed to see how the wistfulness was quite submerging the twinkle in Mrs. Jerry’s eyes, and if she had seen, she would never have guessed what put it there; nor would she have understood why Mrs. Jerry might shrink from attending that magnificent festival, perhaps the only gringo woman in all the crowd, and a pitifully shabby gringo woman at that. To her mind, Mrs. Jerry was beautiful and perfect, even in her shapeless brown dress that was always clean. Teresita herself would never have worn that dress at all, yet it did not occur to her that Mrs. Jerry might have some very feminine quality of pride crowded down into some corner of her sweet nature. So Teresita was mightily offended at what she considered a slight from the only gringo woman she had ever known; and she was also bitterly disappointed over the abandonment of the new coiffure.
“Why don’t you wear it just the way it is, honey?” Mrs. Jerry had suggested–and very sensibly, too. “I wouldn’t go and twist it all up and stick pins through it, if I was you. It’s prettier just that way.”
Teresita had understood enough of that, thanks to the teachings of her blue-eyed one, to know that the pretty senora did not mean to keep her promise. She had gone almost immediately to the cabin door to tell Jack that she was ready to go home. And Jack, deep in one of those interminable conversations with Jerry himself, over on the pile of logs that would one day be a stable if Jerry’s hopes reached fruition, had merely waved his hand carelessly when he saw her, and had given all his attention to Jerry again.
Of course, Teresita could not know that they were discussing a brief but rancorous encounter which Jerry had had with Manuel that morning, when the two happened to meet farther down the valley while Manuel was riding his share of the rodeo circle. Two of Jose’s men had been with Manuel, and their attitude had been “purty derned upstropolus,” according to Jerry. (Jack decided after a puzzled minute that the strange word which Jerry spoke with such relish must be Simpsonese for obstreperous.) They had, in fact, attempted to drive off three of Jerry’s oxen to the rodeo ground, and only the characteristic “firmness” of Jerry had prevented them from doing it. Jemina, he said, had helped some when pointed at Manuel’s scowling face; but Jerry opined that he would hereafter take the twins along too when he rode out anywhere, and that he guessed he’d cut another loophole or two in his cabin walls.
All of these various influences had created an atmosphere which Teresita felt and resented without attempting to understand. The big senor had not given her the smiles and the funny attempts at conversation which she had come to accept as a matter of course. The pretty senora had not been as enthusiastic as she should have been, when Teresita showed her the ruby chain which, like a child, she had brought over for the pretty senora to admire.
Therefore, Jack’s lips found reason to tighten and cease their eager quivering for a kiss. For Teresita twitched her shoulders pettishly and her reins dexterously, and so removed herself some distance from the kissing zone.
“No? Well, I’ll have to depend on my good riata, then. I’ll take that gentleman at twenty-five feet, and if I can get him to run right, I’ll heel him. Don’t ride any closer, Teresita.”
He had not called her dulce corazon (sweetheart) as she had expected him to call her; he had not even insisted upon the kiss, but had given up altogether too tamely; and for that she rode closer to the bull in spite. She even had some notion of getting in Jack’s way, and of making him miss if she could. She was seventeen, you see, and she was terribly spoiled.
Jack had never made any attempt to study the psychological twists of a woman’s nature. He contented himself with loving, and with being straightforward and selfish and a bit arrogant in his love, after the manner of the normal man. It would never occur to him that Teresita was piqued because he had not called her sweetheart, and he straightway sinned more grievously still.
“Go back, the other way! He’s liable to start in your direction,” he cried, intent upon her safety and his own whim to rope the beast.
Teresita deliberately kicked her horse and loped forward.
It would not be nice to say that bulls are like some humans, but it is a fact that they are extremely illogical animals, full of impulses and whims that have absolutely no relation to cause or effect. This bull had not moved except to roll his eyes from one to the other of the riders. If he meditated war he should, by all the bovine traditions of warfare, have bellowed a warning and sent up a whiff or two of dirt over his back, as one has a right to expect a pessimistic bull to do. Instead of which he flung down his head and made an unexpected rush at Teresita–and Jack had left his pistols at home.
Jack’s riata was coiled in his hand and his head was turned towards the girl, his brain busy with his thoughts of her and her wilfulness. From the tail of his eye he caught the first lunge of the bull, and that automatic mental adjustment to unexpected situations, which we call presence of mind, sent a knee-signal to Surry which that intelligent animal obeyed implicitly.
Surry rushed straight at the bull, but the triangle was a short one, and there was much to do in that quarter of a minute. Teresita was stubborn and would not turn and run; but she happened to be riding Tejon, who knew something about bulls and was capable of acting upon his knowledge. He whirled with hind feet for a pivot and ducked away from the horns coming at him, and it was not one second too soon. The bull swept by, so close that a slaver of foam was flung against Teresita’s skirt as he passed.
He whirled to come back at the girl–and that time he seemed sure to give that vicious, ripping jab he had so narrowly missed giving before; even the girl saw that he would, and turned a little pale, and Tejon’s eyes glazed with terror.
But Jack had gained the second he needed–the second that divided adventure from tragedy. The riata loop shot from his upflung hand and sped whimperingly on its errand, even as Tejon tried to swing away, tripped, and tumbled to his knees. The riata caught the lifted forefeet of the bull just as he stiffened his neck for the lunge. Surry braced himself automatically when Jack drew tight the loop, and the bull went down with a thud and lay with his forefeet held high in air, so close to his quarry that the tip of one horn struck Tejon upon the knee and flicked a raw, red spot there.
Then Jack, in the revulsion from deadly fear to relief, was possessed by one of those gusts of nervous rage that seized him sometimes; such a brief fit of rage as made him kill lustfully three men in the space of three heart-beats, almost, and feel regret because he could not keep on killing.
He did not run to Teresita and comfort her for her fright, as a lover ought to have done. Instead he gave her one look as he went by, and that a look of indignation for her foolishness. He ran to the bull, drew his knife from his sash and tried to stab it in the brain; but his hand shook so that he missed and only gave it a glancing gash that let much blood flow. He swore and struck again, snapping the dagger blade short off against the horns. Whereupon he threw the dagger violently from him and gave an angry kick at the animal, as if he would kill it that way.
“Savage!” cried Teresita, hysterically shrill. “Brute! Leave the poor thing alone! It has done nothing, that you should beat it while it cannot fight back.”
Jack, lifting his spurred foot for another kick, set it down and turned to her dazedly.
In her way as shaken by her narrow escape as he was himself, she straightway called him brute and savage again, and sentimentally pitied the bull because he lay upon his back with his front feet in the air, and because the gash on his head was bleeding.
Jack’s rage passed as quickly as it came; but it left him stubborn under her recriminations.
“You are very soft-hearted, all of a sudden, senorita,” he said, with a fairly well-defined sneer, when he could bear no more. “You won’t enjoy the bull-fighting, then, to-morrow–for all you have been looking forward to it so anxiously, and have robbed yourself of ribbons to decorate the darts. It’s not half so brutal to kill a bull that tries to kill you, as it is to fill it with flag-trimmed arrows for fun, and only put it out of its misery when you’re tired of seeing it suffer! This bull came near killing you! That’s why I’m going to kill it.”
“You are not! Santa Maria, what a savage beast you are! Let him go instantly! Let him go, I say!”
If she had been on the ground, she would have stamped her foot. As it was, she shook an adorably tiny fist at Jack, and blinked her long lashes upon the tears of real, sincere anger that stood in her black eyes, and gritted her teeth at him; for the senorita had a temper quite as hot as Jack’s, when it was roused, and all her life she had been given her own way in everything.
“Let him go this moment, or I shall never speak to you again!” she threatened rashly.
For answer, Jack walked deliberately past her to where Surry stood with his feet braced still against the pull of the riata and his neck arched knowingly, while he rolled the little wheel in the bit with his tongue. Jack made himself a cigarette, lay down in the shade of his horse, and smoked just as calmly as though his heart was not thumping so that he could hear it quite plainly. She had gone the wrong way about making him yield; threats had always acted like a goad upon Jack’s anger, just as they do upon most of us.
Teresita looked at him in silence for a minute. And Jack, his head upon his arm in a position that would give him a fair view of her from the brim of his sombrero while he seemed to be taking no notice of her, wondered how soon she would change her mood to coaxing, and so melt that lump of obstinacy in his throat that would not let him so much as answer her vixenish upbraidings. A very little coaxing would have freed the bull then, and he would have kissed the red mouth that had reviled him, and would have called her “dulce corazon,” as she loved to have him do. Such a very little coaxing would have been enough!
“Dios! How I hate a gringo!” she cried passionately, just when Jack believed she was going to cry “Senor Jack?” in that pretty, cooing tone she had that could make the words as tender as a kiss. “Jose is right. Gringos are savages and worse than savages. Stay and torture your bull, then! I hate you! Never have I known hate, till now! I shall be glad when Jose drags you from your horse to-morrow. I shall laugh and clap my hands, and cry, ‘Bravo, bravo, querido mio!’ [my beloved] when you are flung into the dirt where you belong. And when he kills you, I shall kiss him for his reward, before all the people, and I shall laugh when they fling you to the coyotes!” Yes, she said that; for she had a temper–had the Senorita Teresita–and she had a tongue that could speak words that burned like vitriol.
She said more than has been quoted; epithets she hurled upon the recumbent form that seemed a man asleep save for the little drift of smoke from his cigarette; epithets which she had heard the vaqueros use at the corrals upon certain occasions when they did not know that she was near; epithets of which she did not know the meaning at all.
“Bravo!” applauded some one, and she turned to see that Manuel and Carlos, Jose’s head vaquero, had ridden up to the group very quietly, and had been listening for no one knew how long.
The senorita was so angry that she was not in the least abashed by the eavesdropping. She smiled wickedly, drew off a glove and tossed it to Manuel, who caught it dexterously without waiting to see why she wanted him to have it.
“Take that to Jose, for a token,” she cried recklessly. “Tell him I have put a wish upon it; and if he wears it next his heart in the duelo to-morrow he will win without fail. Tell Jose I shall ask the Blessed Virgin to-night to let no accident befall him, and that I shall save the first two dances for him and none other!”
She was not a finished actress, because of her youth. She betrayed by a glance his way that she spoke for Jack’s benefit. And Jack, in the hardening of his stubborn anger, blew a mouthful of smoke upward into a ring which the breeze broke almost immediately, and laughed aloud.
Teresita heard, bit her lips cruelly at failing to bring that stubborn gringo to his feet–and to hers!–and wheeled Tejon close to Manuel and Carlos. She rode away between the two towards home, and she did not once look behind her until she had gone so far she feared she could not see what her blue-eyed one was doing. Then she turned, and her teeth went together with a click. For Jack was lying just as she had left him, with his head upon his arm as if he might be asleep.
Dade, rolling over in bed and at the same moment opening his eyes reluctantly upon the new day, that he hated, beheld Jack half-dressed and shaving his left jaw, and looking as if he were committing murder upon an enemy. Dade watched him idly; he could afford the luxury of idleness that morning; for rodeo was over, and he was lying between linen sheets on a real bed, under a roof other than the branches of a tree; and if his mind had rested as easily as his body, he would have been almost happy.
But this was the day of the fiesta; and with the remembrance of that vital fact came a realization that on this day the Picardo ranch would be the Mecca toward which all California was making pilgrimage; and, he feared, the battle-ground of the warring interests and prejudices of the pilgrims themselves.
Dade listened to the voices shouting orders and greetings without as the vaqueros hurried here and there in excited preparations for the event. He judged that not another man in the valley was in bed at that moment, unless sickness held him there; and for that very reason he pulled a blanket snugger about his ears and tried to make himself believe that he was enjoying to the full his laziness. He had earned it; and last night had been the first one of deep, unbroken sleep that he had had since that moonlit night when Manuel and Valencia rode in haste to meet this surly-browed fellow before him.
Jack did not wipe off the scowl with the lather, and Dade began to observe him more critically; which he had not before had an opportunity to do, for the reason that Jack had not returned to the ranch the night before until Dade was in bed and asleep.
“Say, you don’t want to let the fellows outside see you looking like that,” he remarked, when Jack had yanked a horn comb through his red-brown mop of hair as if he were hoeing corn.
“Why?” Jack turned on him truculently.
“Well, you look a whole lot like a man that expects a licking. And I don’t see any excuse for that; you’re sure to win, old man. I’d bet my last shirt on that.” Which was Dade’s method of wiping off the scowl.
“Say, Dade,” Jack began irrelevantly, “I’m going to use Surry. You don’t mind, do you? He’s the best horse I ever threw a rope off from, without any exceptions. I’ve been training him up a little, and I tell you what, Surry’s going to have a lot to do with that duel.”
Dade sat up in bed as if he had been pulled up. “Jack, are you going to make it a sure-enough duel?” he asked anxiously.
“Why?” Jack’s eyes hardened perceptibly. “That’s what Jose wants.”
“Do you want it?” Dade scowled absent-mindedly at the wall, felt the prick of an unpleasant thought, and glanced sharply at Jack.
“Say, I feel sorry for Jose,” he began straightforwardly. “As a man, I’d like him fine, if he’d let me. And, Jack, you’ve got everything coming your way, and–well, seems like you might go easy on this fight, no matter what Jose wants. He’s crazy jealous, of course–but you want to recollect that he has plenty of cause. You’ve stepped in between him and a girl he’s known all his life. They were practically engaged, before–“
“I don’t know as Jose’s love affairs interest me,” put in Jack harshly. “Do you care if I use Surry? I kinda took it for granted it would be all right, so I went ahead and trained him so I can bank on him in a pinch.”
“Of course you can use him.” That Dade’s hesitation did not cover more than a few seconds was proof of his absolute loyalty to Jack. Not another man living could have used Surry in a struggle such as that would be; a struggle where the danger was not all for the rider, but must be shared equally by the horse. Indeed, Dade himself would not have ridden him in such a contest, because his anxiety lest Surry should be hurt would have crippled his own dexterity. But Jack wanted to ride Surry, and Dade’s lips smiled consent to the sacrifice.
“All right, then. That horse is sure a wonder, Dade. Sensible? You never saw anything like it! I never saw a horse so sensitive to–well, I suppose it’s muscular reactions that I’m unconscious of. I’ve tried him out without a bridle on him; and, Dade, I can sit perfectly still in the saddle, and he’ll turn wherever I make up my mind to go! Fact. You try it yourself, next time you ride him. So I’ve cultivated that faculty of his, this last month.
“And besides, I’ve got him trained to dodge a rope every time. Had Diego go out with me and try to lasso me, you know. I had one devil of a time with the Injun, too, to make him disrespectful enough to throw a rope at me. But Surry took to it like a she-bear to honey, and he’s got so he can gauge distances to a hair, now, and dodge it every pass. I’m going to ride him to-day with a hackamore; and you watch him perform, old man! I can turn him on a tin plate, just with pressing my knees. That horse will–“
“Say, you’re stealing my thunder,” drawled Dade, grinning. “That’s my privilege, to sing Surry’s praises. Haven’t I told you, right along, that he’s a wonder?”
“Well, you told the truth for once in your life, anyway. Get up, you lazy devil, and come out and take a look at him. I’m going to have Diego give him a bath, soon as the sun gets hot enough. I’ve got a color scheme that will make these natives bug their eyes out! And Surry’s got to be considerably whiter than snow–“
“Huh!” Dade was watching him closely while he listened. For all Jack’s exuberance of speech, there was the hard look in his eyes still; and there was a line between his eyebrows which Dade had never noticed there before, except as a temporary symptom of anger. He had, Dade remembered, failed to make any statement of his intentions toward Jose; which was not like Jack, who was prone to speak impulsively and bluntly his mind. Also, it occurred to Dade that he had not once mentioned Teresita, although, before the rodeo his talk had been colored with references to the girl.
“Oh, how’s the senorita, by the way?” Dade asked deliberately.
“All right,” returned Jack promptly, with a rising inflection, “Are you going to get up, or shall I haul you out by the heels?”
Dade, observing an evasion of that subject also, did some hard thinking while he obediently pulled on his clothes. But he said not a word more about the duel, or Jose’s love-tragedy, or Teresita.
Since the first flush of dawn the dismal squeal of wooden-wheeled ox-carts had hushed the bird songs all up and down El Camino Real, and the popping of the drivers’ lashes, which punctuated their objurgations to the shambling oxen, told eloquently of haste. Within canopies formed of gay, patchwork quilts and gayer serapes, heavy-jowled, swarthy senoras lurched resignedly with the jolting of the carts, and between whiles counseled restive senoritas upon the subject of deportment or gossiped idly of those whom they expected to meet at the fiesta.
The Picardo hacienda was fairly wiped clean of its, comfortable home-atmosphere, so immaculate was it and so plainly held ready for ceremonious festivities. The senora herself went about with a linen dust-cloth in her hand, and scolded because the smoke from the fires which the peons had tended all night in the barbecue pits was borne straight toward the house by the tricksy west wind, and left cinders and grime upon windows closed against it. The patio was swept clean of dust and footprints, and the peons scarce dared to cross it in their scurrying errands hither and thither.
In the orchard many caballeros fresh from the rodeo were camped, their waiting-time spent chiefly in talking of the thing they meant to do or hoped to see, while they polished spur-shanks and bridle trimmings.
Horses were being groomed painstakingly at the corrals, and there was always a group around the bear-pen where the two cubs whimpered, and the gaunt mother rolled wicked, little, bloodshot eyes at those who watched and dropped pebbles upon her outraged nose and like cowards remained always beyond her reach.
In the small corral near by, the bulls bellowed hoarsely at the scent of their grizzly neighbor and tossed dirt menacingly over their backs; while above them the rude tiers of seats waited emptily for the yelling humans who would crowd them later. Beyond, under a great, wide-spreading live oak near the roasting pits, three fat young steers swung by their heels from a horizontal limb, ready for the huge gridirons that stood leaning against the trunk behind them. Indeed, the heads of those same steers were even then roasting in their hide in the smaller pit of their own, where the ashes were still warm, though the fire had been drawn over-night.
The sun was not more than two hours high when Don Andres himself appeared in his gala dress upon the veranda, to greet in flowery Spanish the first arrivals among his guests. The senora, he explained courteously, was still occupied, and the senorita, he averred fondly, was sleeping still, because there would be no further opportunity to sleep for many hours; but his house and all that he had was half theirs, and they would honor him most by entering into their possessions.
Whereupon the senoras and the senoritas settled themselves in comfortable chairs and waited, and inspected the house of this lord of the valley, whose luxury was something to envy. Some of those senoras walked upon bare, earthen floors when they were at home, and their black eyes rested hungrily upon the polished, dark wood beneath their feet, and upon the rugs that had come from Spain along with the paintings upon the walls. They looked, and craned, and murmured comments until the senora appeared, a little breathless and warm from her last conference with Margarita in the kitchen, and turned their tongues upon the festival.
Dade was just finishing the rite of shaving, and thinking the while that he would give all that he possessed, including Surry, if he could whisk Jack and himself to the cool, pine slope in the Sierras where was their mine. Every day of waiting and gossiping over the duel had but fostered the feeling of antagonism among the men of the valley, and whatever might be the outcome of that encounter, Dade could see no hope of avoiding an open clash between the partisans of the two combatants. Valencia and Pancho and two or three others of the Picardo vaqueros, who hated Manuel–and therefore had no love for Jose–would be more than likely to side with him and Jack, though he honestly wished that they would not; for the more friends they had when the test was made, the greater would be the disturbance, especially since there would be wine for all; and wine never yet served to cool a temper or lull excitement.
Without in the least realizing it, Dade’s face while he shaved wore a scowl quite as pronounced as the one that had called his attention to Jack’s mood. And, more significant, he had no sooner finished than he looked into his little box of pistol caps to see how many he had left, and inspected the pistol as well; for the law of self-preservation strikes deeper than most emotions, and his life had mostly been lived where men must frequently fight for the right to live; and in such surroundings the fighting instinct wakes at the first hint of antagonism.
“My riata’s gone!” announced Jack breathlessly, bursting into the room at that moment as if he expected to find the thief there. “I left it on my saddle last night, and now–“
“And that was a fool thing to do, I must say!” commented Dade, startled into harshness. He slid the pistol into its holster and buckled the belt around his muscular body with fingers that moved briskly. “Well, my riata’s no slouch–you can use it. You’ve used it before.”
“I don’t want yours. I’ve got used to my own. I know to an inch just where it will land–oh, damn the luck–It was some of those fellows camped by the orchard, and when I find out which–“
“Keep your head on, anyway,” advised Dade more equably. “Your nerves must be pretty well frazzled. If you let a little thing like this upset you, how do you expect–“
“It ain’t a little thing!” gritted Jack, loading his pistols hurriedly. “That six-strand riata has got a different feel, a different weight–oh, you know it’s going to make all the difference in the world when I get out there with Jose. Whoever took it knew what it meant, all right! Some one–“
“Where’s Surry?” A sudden fear sent Dade hurrying to the door. “By the Lord Harry, if they’ve hurt Surry–” He jerked the door open and went out, Jack hard upon his heels.
“I didn’t think of that,” Jack confessed on the way to the stable, and got a look of intense disgust from Dade, which he mitigated somewhat by his next remark. “Diego was to sleep in the stall last night.”
“Oh.” Dade slackened his pace a bit. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“I think,” retorted Jack, grinning a little, “somebody else’s nerves are kinda frazzled, too. I don’t want you to begin worrying over my affairs, Dade. I’m not,” he asserted with unconvincing emphasis. “But all the same, I’d like to get my fingers on the fellow that took my riata!”
Since he formulated that wish after he reached the doorway of the roomy box-stall where Surry was housed, he faced a badly scared peon as the door swung open.
“Senor–I–pardon, Senor! But I feared that harm might come to the riata in the night. There are many guests, Senor, who speak ill of gringos, and I heard a whisper–“
Jack, gripping Diego by the shoulders, halted his nervous explanations. “What about the riata?” he cried. “Do you know where it is?”
“Si, Senor. Me, I took it from the senor’s saddle, for I feared harm would be done if it were left there to tempt those who would laugh to see the senor dragged to the death to-day. Senor, that is Jose’s purpose; from a San Vincente vaquero I heard–and he had it from the lips of Manuel. Jose will lasso the senor, and the horse will run away with Jose, and the senor will be killed. Ah, Senor!–Jose’s skill is great; and Manuel swears that now he will truly fight like a demon, because the prayers of the senorita go with Jose. Her glove she sent him for a token–Manuel swears that it is so, and a message that he is to kill thee, Senor!”
“But my riata?” To Diego’s amazement, his blue-eyed god seemed not in the least disturbed, either by plot or gossip.
“Ah, the riata! Last night I greased it well, Senor, so that to-day it would be soft. And this morning at daybreak I stretched it here in the stall and rubbed it until it shone. Now it is here, Senor, where no knife-point can steal into it and cunningly cut the strands that are hidden, so that the senor would not observe and would place faith upon it and be betrayed.” Diego lifted his loose, linen shirt and disclosed the riata coiled about his middle.
The eyes of his god, when they rested upon the brown body wrapped round and round with the rawhide on which his life would later hang, were softer than they had been since he had craved the kiss that had been denied him, many hours before. It was only the blind worship and the loyalty of a peon whose feet were bare, whose hands were calloused with labor, whose face was seamed with the harshness of his serfdom. Only a peon’s loyalty; but something hard and bitter and reckless, something that might have proved a more serious handicap than a strange riata, dropped away from Jack’s mood and left him very nearly his normal self. It was as if the warmth of the rawhide struck through the chill which Teresita’s unreasoning spite had brought to the heart of him, and left there a little glow.
“Gracias, Diego,” he said, and smiled in the way that made one love him. “Let it stay until I have need of it. It will surely fly true, to-day, since it has been warmed thus by thy friendship.”
From an impulse of careless kindness he said it, even though he had been touched by the peon’s anxiety for his welfare. But Diego’s heart was near to bursting with gratitude and pride; those last two words–he would not have exchanged the memory of them for the gold medal itself. That his blue-eyed god should address him, a mere peon, as “thy,” the endearing, intimate pronoun kept for one’s friends! The tears stood in Diego’s black eyes when he heard; and Diego was no weakling, but a straight-backed stoic of an Indian, who stood almost as tall as the Senor Jack himself and who could throw a full-grown steer to the ground by twisting its head. He bowed low and turned to fumble the sweet, dried grasses in Surry’s manger; and beneath his coarse shirt the feel of the rawhide was sweeter than the embrace of a loved woman.
“You want to take mighty good care of this little nag of mine,” Dade observed irrelevantly, his fingers combing wistfully the crinkly mane. “There’ll never be another like him in this world. And if there was, it wouldn’t be him.”
“I reckon it’s asking a good deal of you, to think of using him at all.” For the first time Jack became conscious of his selfishness. “I won’t, Dade, if you’d rather I didn’t.”
“Don’t be a blamed idiot. You know I want you to go ahead and use him; only–I’d hate to see him hurt.”
To Dade the words seemed to be wrenched from the very fibers of his friendship. He loved that horse more than he had ever believed he could love an animal; and he was mentally sacrificing him to Jack’s need.
Jack went up and rubbed Surry’s nose playfully; and it cost Dade a jealous twinge to see how the horse responded to the touch.
“He won’t get hurt. I’ve taught him how to take care of himself; haven’t I, Diego?” And he put the statement into Spanish, so that the peon could understand.
“Si, he will never let the riata touch him, Senor. Truly, it is well that he will come at the call, for otherwise he would never again he caught!” Diego grinned, checked himself on the verge of venturing another comment, and tilted his head sidewise instead, his ears perked toward the medley of fiesta sounds outside.
“Listen, Senors! That is not the squeal of carts alone, which I hear. It is the carriage that has wheels made of little sticks, that chatters much when it moves. Americanos are coming, Senors.”
“Americanos!” Dade glanced quickly at Jack, mutely questioning. “I wonder if–” He gave Surry a hasty, farewell slap on the shoulder and went out into the sunshine and the clamor of voices and laughter, with the creaking of carts threaded through it all. The faint, unmistakable rattle of a wagon driven rapidly, came towards them. While they stood listening, came also a confused jumble of voices emitting sounds which the two guessed were intended for a song. A little later, above the high-pitched rattle of the wagon wheels, they heard the raucous, long-drawn “Yank-ee doo-oo-dle da-a-andy!” which confirmed their suspicions and identified the comers as gringos beyond a doubt.
“Must be a crowd from San Francisco,” said Jack needlessly. “I wrote and told Bill about the fiesta, when I sent up after some clothes. I told him to come down and take it in–and I guess he’s coming.”
Bill was; and he was coming largely, emphatically, and vaingloriously. He had a wagon well loaded with his more intimate friends, including Jim. He had a following of half his Committee of Vigilance and all the men of like caliber who could find a horse or a mule to straddle. Even the Roman-nosed buckskin of sinister history was in the van of the procession that came charging up the slope with all the speed it could muster after the journey from the town on the tip of the peninsula.
In the wagon were a drum, two fifes, a cornet, and much confusion of voices. Bill, enthroned upon the front seat beside the driver of the four-horse team, waved both arms exuberantly and started the song all over again, so that they had to sing very fast indeed in order to finish by the time they swung up to the patio and stopped.
Bill scrambled awkwardly down over the wheel and gripped the hands of those two whose faces welcomed him without words. “Well, we got here,” he announced, including the whole cavalcade with one sweeping gesture. “Started before daylight, too, so we wouldn’t miss none of the doings.” He tilted his head toward Dade’s ear and jerked his thumb towards the wagon. “Say! I brought the boys along, in case–” His left eyelid lowered lazily and flew up again into its normal position as Don Andres, his sombrero in his hand, came towards them across the patio, smiling a dignified welcome.
Dade spoke not a word in reply, but his eyes brightened wonderfully. There was still the element of danger, and on a larger scale than ever. But it was heartening to have Bill Wilson’s capable self to stand beside him. Bill could handle turbulent crowds better than any man Dade had ever seen.
They lingered, greeting acquaintances here and there among the arrivals, until Bill was at liberty again.
“Got any greaser here that can talk white man’s talk, and you can trust?” was Bill’s mild way of indicating his need of an interpreter, when the fiesta crowd had grown to the proportions of a multitude that buzzed like giant bees in a tree of ripe figs.
“Why? What do you want of one? Valencia will help you out, I guess.” Dade’s hesitation was born of inattention rather than reluctance. He was watching the gesticulating groups of Californians as a gambler watches the faces of his opponents, and the little weather-signs did not reassure him.
“Well, there’s good money to be picked out of this crowd,” said Bill, pushing his hands deep into his pockets. “I can’t understand their lingo, but faces talk one language; and I don’t care what’s the color of the skin. I’ve been reading what’s wrote in their eyes and around their mouths. I can get big odds on Jack, here, if I can find somebody to talk for me. How about it, Jack? I’ve heard some say there’s more than the gold medal and a horse up on this lariat game. I’ve heard some say you two have put your necks in the jack-pot. On the quiet, what do you reckon you’re going to do to the greaser?”
Jack shifted his glance to Dade’s face, tense with anxiety while he waited. He looked out over the slope dotted thickly with people, laughed briefly and mirthlessly, and then looked full at Bill.
“I reckon I’m going to kill him,” he said very quietly.
Big Bill stared. “Say! I’m glad I ain’t the greaser,” he said dryly, answering a certain something in Jack’s eyes and around his lips. Bill had heard men threaten death, before now; but he did not think of this as a threat. To him it seemed a sentence of death.
“Jack, you’ll be sorry for it,” warned Dade under his breath. “Don’t go and–“
“I don’t want to hear any remarks on the subject.” Never in all the years of their friendship had Jack spoken to him in so harsh a tone. “God Almighty couldn’t talk me out of it. I’m going to kill him. Let it go at that.” He turned abruptly and walked away to the stable, and the two stood perfectly still and watched him out of sight.
“He’ll do it, too,” said Dade distressfully. “There’s something in this I don’t understand–but he’ll do it.”
THE BATTLE OF BEASTS
Sweating, impatient humans wedged tight upon the seats around the rim of the great adobe corral, waited for the bulls to dash in through the gate and be goaded into the frenzy that would thrill the spectators pleasurably. Meantime, those spectators munched sweets and gossiped, smoked cigarettes and gossiped; sweltered under the glare of the sun and gossiped; and always they talked of the gringos, who had come one hundred strong and never a woman among them; one hundred strong, and every man of them dangling pistols at his hips–pistols that could shoot six times before they must be reloaded, and shoot with marvelous exactness of aim at that; one hundred strong, and every one of the hundred making bets that the gringo with the red-brown hair would win the medalla oro from Don Jose, who three times had fought and kept it flashing on his breast, so that now no vaquero dared lift eyes to it!
Truly, those gringos were a mad people, said the gossips. They would see the blue-eyed one flung dead upon the ground, and then–would the gringos want to fight? Knives were instinctively loosened under sashes when the owners talked of the possibility. Knives are swift and keen, but those guns that could shoot six times with one loading–Gossip preferred to dwell greedily upon the details of the quarrel between the young Don Jose and his gringo rival.
There were whispers also of a quarrel between the senorita and her gringo lover, and it was said that the young senorita prayed last night that Jose would win. But there were other whispers than that: One, that the maid of the senorita had been seen to give a rose and a written message into the hands of the Senor Allen, not an hour ago; and had gone singing to her mistress again, and smiling while she sang. Truly, that did not look as if the senorita had prayed for Jose! The Senor Allen had kept the rose. Look you! It was a token, and he would doubtless wear it upon his breast in the fight, where he hoped later to wear the medalla oro–but where the hands would be folded instead while the padres said mass for him; if indeed mass could be said over a dead gringo! There was laughter to follow that conceit. And so they talked, and made the tedious time of waiting seem shorter than it was.
Late comers looked for seats, found none, and were forced to content themselves with such perches as neighboring trees and the roofs of the outbuildings might afford. Peons who had early scrambled to the insecure vantage-point of the nearest stable roof, were hustled off to make room for a group of Salinas caballeros who arrived late. This was merely the bull-fighting coming now; but bull-fighting never palls, even though bigger things are yet in store. For there is always the chance that a horse may be gored to death–even that a man may die horribly. Such things have been and may be again; so the tardy ones climbed and scurried and attained breathlessness and a final resting-place together.
Came a season of frenzied yelling, breathless moments of suspense, and stamping that threatened disaster to the seats. Two bulls in succession had been let into the corral, bellowed under the shower of be-ribboned barbs and went down, fighting valiantly to the last.
Blood-lusting, the great crowd screamed importunities for more. “Bring out the bear!” was their demand. “Let us see that she-bear fight the big bull which has been reserved for the combat!”
Now, this was ticklish work for the Picardo vaqueros who were stage-managing the sport. From the top of the corral above the bear-cage they made shift to slide the oaken gate built across an opening into the adobe corral. Through the barred ceiling of the pen they prodded the bear from her sulking and sent her, malevolent and sullen, into the arena. (Senoras tucked vivid skirts closer about stocky ankles and sent murmurous appeals to their patron saints, and senoritas squealed in trepidation that was at least half sincere. It was a very big bear, and she truly looked very fierce and as if she would think nothing of climbing the adobe wall and devouring a whole front seat full of fluttering femininity! Rosa screamed and was immediately reassured, when Teresita reminded her that those fierce gringos across the corral had many guns.)
The bear did not give more than one look of hatred at the flutter above. Loose-skinned and loose-jointed she shambled across the corral; lifted her pointed nose to sniff disgustedly the air tainted with the odor of enemies whom she could not reach with her huge paws, and went on. Clear around the corral she walked, her great, hand-like feet falling as silently as the leaf shadows that splashed one whole corner and danced all over her back when she passed that way; back to the pen where her two cubs whimpered against the bars, and watched her wishfully with pert little tiltings of their heads. (Teresita was confiding to Rosa, beside her, that they would each have a cub for a pet when the mother bear was killed).
Valencia and Pancho and one other were straining to shift the gate of another pen. It was awkward, since they must work from the top; for the adobe corral was as the jaws of a lion while the bear circled watchfully there, and the pen they were striving to open was no safer, with the big, black bull rolling bloodshot eyes at them from below. He had been teased with clods of dirt and small stones flung at him. He had shaken the very posts in their sockets with the impact of his huge body while he tried to reach his tormentors, until they desisted in the fear that he would break his horns off in his rage and so would cheat them of the sight of the good, red blood of the she-bear. Now he was in a fine, fighting mood, and he had both horns with which to fight. From his muzzle dribbled the froth of his anger, as he stiffened his great neck and rumbled a challenge to all the world. Twice, when the gate moved an inch or two and creaked with straining, he came at it so viciously that it jammed again; indeed, it was the batterings of the bull that had made it so hard to open.
Valencia, catching a timbered crosspiece, gave it a lift and a heave. The gate came suddenly free and slid back as they strained at the crosspiece. The bull, from the far side of the pen where he had backed for another rush, shot clear through the opening and half-way across the adobe corral before he realized that he was free.
The bear, at pause in her circlings while she snuffed at the bars that now separated her from her cubs, whirled and lifted herself awkwardly upon her haunches, her narrow head thrust forward sinisterly as she faced this fresh annoyance. Midway, the bull stopped with two or three stiff-legged jumps and glared at her, a little chagrined, perhaps, at the sudden transformation from human foe to this grizzled hill-giant whom instinct had taught him to fear. In his calf-hood he had fled many times before the menace of grizzly, and perhaps he remembered. At any rate he stiffened his forelegs, stopped short, and glared.
Up above, the breaths that had been held came in a shout together. Everyone who saw the pause yelled to the bull to go on and prove his courage. And the bull, when the first shock of surprise and distaste had passed, backed ominously, head lowered, tail switching in spasmodic jerks from side to side. The bear stood a little straighter in her defiance; her head went forward an inch; beyond that she did not move, for her tactics were not to rush but to wait, and to put every ounce of her terrible strength into the meeting.
The neck of the bull swelled and curved, his eyeballs showed glassy. His back humped; like a bowlder hurled down a mountain slope he made his rush, and nothing could swerve him.
The bear might have dodged, and sent him crashing against the wall. Men hoped that she would, and so prolong the excitement. But she did not. She stood there and waited, her forepaws outspread as if for an embrace.
Like a bullet sent true to the target, the head of the bull met the gaunt, ungainly, gray shape; met and went down, the tip of one sharp horn showing in the rough hair of her back, her body collapsing limply across the neck she had broken with one tremendous side-blow as he struck. A moment she struggled and clawed futilely to free herself, then lay as quiet as the bull himself. And so that spectacle ended swiftly and suddenly.
In the reaction which followed that ten-seconds’ suspense, men grumbled because it had ended so soon. But, upon second thoughts, its very brevity brought the duel just that much closer, and so they heaved great sighs of relaxation and began craning and looking for the two to enter who would fight to the death with riatas.
Instead, entered the gringo whom Don Andres had foolishly chosen for majordomo, and stood in the middle of the corral, quietly waiting while the vaqueros with their horses and riatas dragged away the carcasses of the bull and the bear.
When the main gate slammed shut behind them Dade lifted his eyes to that side of the corral where the Californians were massed clannishly together, and raised his hands for silence; got it by degrees, as a clamoring breaker subsides and dwindles to little, whispering ripple sounds; and straightway began in the sonorous melody of the Castilian tongue which had been brought, pure and undefiled, from Spain and had not yet been greatly corrupted into the dialect spoken to-day among the descendants and called Spanish.
“Senors, and Senoras” (so he began), “the hour is now midday, and there are many who have come far and are wearied. In the orchard you will find refreshment for all; and your host, Don Andres Picardo, desires me to say for him that he will be greatly honored if you will consider that all things are yours to be used for your comfort and pleasure.
“In two hours, further sports will take place, in the open beyond this corral, so that the seats which you now occupy will serve also to give a fair view of the field. There will be riding contests, free for all caballeros to enter who so desire, and the prize will be a beautiful silver-trimmed bridle that may be seen at the saddle house. After the riding, there will be a contest in the lassoing and tying down of wild steers, for which a prize of a silver hatband and spurs will be given by Don Andres Picardo, your host. Also there will be the riding of bulls; and the prize for the most skillful rider will be a silver-mounted quirto of beautiful design.
“Immediately after these various contests”–Dade could see the tensing of interest among his listeners then–“there will be a contest with riatas between Don Jose Pacheco and Senor Jack Allen, an Americano vaquero from Texas. As the prize for this contest, Don Andres offers Solano, a gelding, four years of age and unbroken. But Don Andres makes this condition: that the winner shall lasso his prize in this corral, and ride him before you all. If he should chance to be thrown, then the prize shall be forfeited to the other contestant, who will also be required to ride the horse before you all. If he also shall fail to ride the caballo, then will the horse revert to Don Andres, who will keep him for his own saddle horse!” He waited while the applause at this sly bit of humor gradually diminished into the occasional pistol-popping of enthusiastic palms, and gestured for silence that he might speak again.
“I am also instructed to inform you that not alone for the prize which Don Andres offers will the contest be fought. I am requested to announce that the Texas vaquero, Senor Jack Allen, hereby publicly challenges Don Jose Pacheco to contest for the gold medal which now rests in the possession of Don Jose. Senors and Senoras, I thank you for attending so graciously to my words, and I wish to ask for continued attention while I announce the sports to these Americanos who do not understand the Spanish, and who are also the guests of Don Andres Picardo, your host.”
He bowed low before them, turned and told Bill Wilson’s solemnly attentive crowd what was to take place after the feast. Not so elaborate; terse, that he might not try the politeness of that other crowd too far. And when he was done he stopped himself on the verge of saying more, reconsidered and, trusting to the fact that scarce a Spaniard there spoke English, added a warning.
“I hope you all realize,” he said, “that we’re anxious to have everything go off peaceably. We look to you men to see that, whatever may happen, there shall be no disturbance. Such things are easier started than stopped; and, just as a hint of what will do the most to keep the peace, I want to announce that the water on this rancho can’t be beat, and can safely be used for drinking purposes!”
“Water goes, m’ son, or I’ll know the reason why,” called Bill Wilson, and the palms of his crowd clapped vigorous assent.
“That thar’s the sensiblest thing you’ve said, so fur,” approved Jerry Simpson, beside Bill. “Me an’ the twins’ll stand guard, if necessary, and see’t that thar hint is took.” Whereat Bill Wilson clapped him on the shoulder approvingly.
There was the hum of confusion while the hungry sought the barbecue pits. Dade, his face settled into gloomy foreboding in spite of certain heartening circumstances, went slowly away to his room; where Jack, refusing to take any interest in the sports, lay sprawled upon the bed with a cigarette gone cold between his lips and his eyes fixed hardly upon the ceiling.
Dade gave him a look to measure the degree of his unapproachable mood, sighed wearily and flung his silver-spangled sombrero petulantly into a corner.
“Damn!” he said viciously, as if his vocabulary was so inadequate to voice his emotions that the one expletive would do as well as any to cover his meaning; and sat down heavily in a cushioned chair.
Two minutes, perhaps, of silence, while from sheer force of habit he rolled a cigarette he did not want.
Then Jack moved his head on the pillow so that he could look at Dade.
“I wish you wouldn’t take my affairs so to heart,” he said, apathy fighting his understanding and his appreciation of a friend like this. “I’d he a whole lot easier in my mind if I didn’t know you were worried half to death. And it’s no good worrying, Dade. Some’ things just come at a fellow, head down; and they have to be met, if we expect to look anybody in the face again.” He shifted his head impatiently and stared again at the ceiling. “I’d rather be dead than a coward,” he said, speaking low.
“Oh, I know. But–men are just beasts with clothes on their backs. Did you hear them yelling, awhile ago? That was when beasts just as human as they are under the skin, fought and killed each other, so those yelling maniacs could get a thrill or two.” He searched his pockets for a match, found one and drew it glumly along the sole of his high-heeled, calfskin boot with its embroidered top of yellow silk on red morocco.
“That’s what makes me sick to the stomach,” he went on. “They’ll sit and watch you two, and they’ll gloat over the spectacle–“
A brisk tattoo of knuckles on the oaken door stopped him. Bill came in, grinning with satisfaction over something.
“Say, I’ve been getting bets laid down five and six to one, on the greaser,” he exulted. “You go in and clean him up, Jack, and we’ll skin this outfit down to their shirts! All the boys have been taking every bet that was offered; and the old don, I guess, is about the only greaser on the place that ain’t bet all he’s got. Three-to-one that Jose gets you the third pass, m’ son! Now, I don’t know a damned thing about this here lasso business, but I took ’em on that, and so did a lot of the boys; and from that up to six-to-one that he’ll get you! Want to lay a few bets yourself, you and Dade? That’s what I come to find out.”
Dade threw out both hands in disgust with the idea; revolted unexpectedly at the thought of being accused of failing to back his friendship with money as well as with every fiber of his loyal being, and turned sourly to Bill. “I’ve got something like six or eight hundred, in dust,” he said. “Lend me enough to make it a thousand, and put ‘er up. Take any odds they offer, damn ’em. It’ll be blood money, win or lose, but–put ‘er up. They can’t yowl around that I’m afraid to back him down to my boots.”
“That’s the kinda talk!” approved Bill. “Make ’em take water all around, the swine! And the boys’ll see they cough up afterwards, too. I guess–” He checked himself and went out, still grinning.
THE DUEL OF RIATAS
“They’re riding the last bull,” announced Dade, coming into the room again where Jack was dressing for the supreme test of the day. “I’ve got your plan for the ground explained to Valencia and Pancho, and Diego’s shining Surry up till you can see your face in him. You ought to be thankful there’s somebody on the lookout as faithful as that Injun. I just discovered he hasn’t had a bite to eat since last night, because he wouldn’t leave Surry long enough to get anything. I hope you’re grateful.”
“I am,” said Jack shortly. “But I’ve no business to be. Right now I don’t believe much in the sloppy whine of gratitude or the limber-backed prayer for mercy. Thankful or not, we get what we get. Fate hands it out to us; and we may as well take it and keep our mouths shut.”
“That’s the result of cooping yourself in here all day, just thinking and smoking cigarettes,” grumbled Dade, himself worried to the point of nervous petulance. If he could have taken his own riata and fought also, he would have been much nearer his usual calm, humorous self.
“Say, I told Jose the rules you suggested, and he agreed to every one like a gentleman. He just came, and Manuel with him leading the horse Jose means to use; a big, black brute with a chest on him like a lion. His crowd stood on their hind legs and yelled themselves purple when they saw him come riding up.”
“Well, that’s what they’ve come for–to yell over Jose.” Jack held three new neckties to the light, trying to choose the one he would wear.
“Say–” Dade hesitated, looking doubtfully at the other.
“Well? Say it.” Jack chose a deep crimson and flung the loop over his head as if he were arraying himself for a ball.
“It may be some advantage to know … I’ve watched Jose lasso cattle; he always uses–“
“Step right there!” Jack swung to face him. “I don’t want to know how Jose works with his riata. He don’t know any of my little kinks, don’t you see? I never,” he added, after a little silence, “started out with the deliberate intention of killing a man, before. I can’t take any advantage, Dade; you know that, just as well as I do.” He tried to smile, to soften the rebuff–and he failed.
Dade went up and laid a contrite hand upon his shoulder. “You’re a better man than I am, Jack,” he asserted humbly. “But it’s hell for me to stand back and let you go into this thing alone. I’ve got piles of confidence in you, old boy–but Jose never got that medal by saying ‘pretty, please’ and holding out his hand. The best lassoer in California means something. And he means to kill you–“
“If I’ll let him,” put in Jack, stretching his lips in what passed for a grin.
“I know–but you’ve been off the range for two years, just about; and you’ve had a little over three weeks to make up for that lost practice.” His eyes caught their two reflections in the glass, and something in Jack’s made him smile ruefully. “Kick me good,” he advised. “I need it. I’ve got nerves worse than any old woman. I know you’ll come out on top. You always do. But–what’n hell made you say riatas?”
“What’n hell made you brag about me to Manuel?” Jack came back instantly, and was sorry for it when he saw how Dade winced. “Honest, I’m not a bit scared. I know what I can do, and I’m not worrying.”
“You are. I never saw you so queer as you have been since I came back. You’re no more like yourself than–“
“Well–but it ain’t the duel altogether.” Jack hesitated. “Say, Dade! Did–er–did Teresita take in all the sports? Bull fight and all?”
“Yes. She and that friend of hers from the Mission were in the front row having the time of their lives. Is that talk true about–” Dade eyed him sharply.
“You go on and get things ready. In five minutes I’ll expect to make my little bow to Fate.”
Outside in the sunshine, men waited and clamored greedily for more excitement. All day they had waited for the duel, at most merely appeased by the other sports; and now, with Jose actually among them, and with the wine they had drunk to heat their blood and the mob-psychology working its will of them, they were scarce human, but rather a tremendous battle beast personified by dark, eager faces and tongues that wagged continually and with prejudice.
A group of spur-jingling vaqueros, chosen because of their well-broken mounts, rode out in front of the adobe corral and the expectant audience, halted and dispersed to their various stations as directed by Dade, clear-voiced, steady of glance, unemotional, as if he were in charge of a bit of work from habit gone stale.
He might confess to “nerves” in private; in public, there were men who marveled at his calm.
Riatas uncoiled and with each end fastened to a saddle horn, the vaqueros filed out from the corral in two straight lines, with Dade and Valencia to lead the way. When they were placed to Dade’s liking, the riatas fenced in a rectangle two hundred yards long, and one-third that distance across. At each riata length, all down the line, a vaquero sat quiet upon his horse, a living fence-post holding the riata fence tight and straight. Down the middle of the arena thus formed easily with definite boundaries, peons were stretching, upon forked stakes, a rope spliced to reach the whole six hundred feet–save that a space of fifty feet was left open at each end so that the combatants might, upon occasion, change sides easily.
Twice Dade paced the width of the area to make sure that the dividing line marked the exact center. When the last stake was driven deep and the rope was knotted securely in place, he rode straight to the corral and pulled up before the judges’ stand for his final announcement.
It was a quiet crowd now that he faced. A mass of men and women, tense, silent, ears and eyes strained to miss no smallest detail. He had no need to lift his hand for their attention; he had it–had it to the extent that every man there was unconscious of his neighbor. That roped area was something new, something they had not been expecting. Also the thing Dade told them sounded strange to these hot-blooded ones, who had looked forward to a whirlwind battle, with dust and swirling riatas and no law except the law of chance and superior skill and cunning.
“The two who will fight with riatas for the medalla oro and for the prize which Don Andres offers to the victor,” he began, “have agreed upon certain rules which each has promised to observe faithfully, that skill rather than luck may be the chief factor in the fight. These are the rules of the contest:
“None but those two, Don Jose Pacheco and Senor Allen, will be permitted within the square we have marked off for them after the first signal shot is fired. They will toss a coin for first position and will start from opposite ends of the ground. At the signal, which will be a pistol shot, they will mount and ride with the center rope between them. Upon meeting”–he stopped long enough for a quick smile–“they will try what they can do. If both miss, they will coil their riatas and hang them from the horn, and ride on to the end; there they will dismount and wait for the second signal for starting.
“They will repeat these maneuvers until the contest is decided, one way or the other, but at no time will they start before the signal is given.
“Remember, no one else will be permitted inside the line, at any time; also, neither of the contestants may pass the dividing line unless he has the other at his mercy–when–he may cross if he chooses.” It cost Dade something, that last sentence, but he said it firmly; repeated the rules more briefly in English and rode out of the square, a vaquero slackening the first riata of the line to leave a space for him to pass. And as he went, there was nothing in his manner to show how ticklish he felt the situation to be.
Only, when he came upon Jack, just riding out from the stable upon Surry, his lips drew tight and thin. But he merely waved his hand and went on to tell Jose that he wanted Manuel to give the signals, for then all would be sure that there would be no unfairness.
He was gone perhaps two minutes; yet when he returned with Manuel glowering beside him, that fenced area was lined four deep with horsemen all around; and so had they segregated themselves instinctively, friend with friend, that the northern side was a mass of bright colors to show that there stood the Spanish caballeros; and opposite them, a more motley showing and yet a more sinister one, stood the Americanos, with Bill Wilson pressed against the rope half-way down the line, and beside him big Jerry Simpson, lounging upon Moll, his black mule.
Instinctively, Dade rode around to them, beckoning Manuel to follow; and placed him between Jerry and Bill; explained that Manuel was to fire the starting signals, and smiled his thanks when Jerry promptly produced one of his “twins” and placed it in Manuel’s hands.
“P’int her nose in the air, mister, when you turn her loose,” he advised solemnly. “She’s loaded fur b’ar!”
“Keep your eyes open,” Dade warned Bill Wilson when he turned to ride back; and Bill nodded understandingly. Bill, for that matter, usually did keep his eyes open, and to such purpose that nothing escaped them.
Back at the corral, Dade saw Jack waiting upon Surry in the shade of the adobe wall until the moment came for entering the arena. Near to him, Jose calmed his big, black horse and waited also, cold hauteur the keynote of his whole attitude. Dade waved his hand to them, and they followed him into the empty rectangle. From the crowd came a rustle as of a gust of wind through tree-tops; then they were still again, watching and waiting and listening.
Those for whom they had watched all day at last stood side by side before them; and the picture they made must have pleased the most exacting eye that looked down upon them.
For Jose was all black and silver, from the tasseled, silver cord upon his embroidered sombrero to the great silver rowels of his spurs. Black velvet jacket, black velvet breeches with silver braid glistening in heavy, intricate pattern; black hair, black eyes–and a black frown, withal, and for good reason, perhaps. For, thinking to win a smile from her who had sent the glove and the message, Jose looked towards the nearest and most comfortable seat, where Teresita sat, smiling and resplendent, between her mother and Rosa. He had looked, had Jose, and had seen her smile; but he saw that it was not at him she smiled, but at Jack. It is true, the smile may have been merely scornful; but Jose was in no mood for nice analysis, and the hurt was keen enough because she smiled at all, and it made his mood a savage one.
Jack was all white and red save for the saddle, which was black with silver trimmings; and Surry, milk white from ears to heel, served to complete the picture satisfyingly. Diego must have put an extra crimp in mane and tail, for the waves were beautiful to behold; he had surely polished the hoofs so that they shone; and nature had done the rest, when she made Surry the proud, gentle, high-stepping animal he was. Jack wore breeches and jacket of soft, white leather–and none but Bill Wilson knew what they had cost in time, trouble, and money. A red, silk sash was knotted about his middle; the flaming, crimson tie fluttered under his chin; and he was bareheaded, so that his coppery hair lifted from his untanned forehead in the breeze, and made many a senorita’s pulse quicken admiringly. For Jack, think what you will of him otherwise, was extremely good to look upon.
“Heads for Don Jose!” A Mexican dollar, spun high in air from Dade’s fingers, glittered and fell straight. Three heads bent to see which side came uppermost, and thousands of necks craned futilely.
“Don Jose will choose his starting-point,” Dade called out. “But first the two will lead their horses over the ground, so that they may make sure that there are no holes or stones to trip them.”
Even in that preliminary, they showed how differently two persons will go about doing the same thing. Jose, trailing immense, silver spur-rowels, walked with the bridle reins looped over his arm, his eyes examining critically every foot of the ground as he passed.
Jack, loosening his riata as he dismounted, caught the loop over the high horn and let the rope drop to the ground. He wore no spurs; and as for Surry, he had no bridle and bit, but a hackamore instead.
Jack threw the reins over the neck of the horse. “Come, old fellow,” he said, quite as if he were speaking to a person, and started off. And Surry, his neck arched, his ears perked knowingly, stepped out after him with that peculiar, springy gait that speaks eloquently of perfect muscles and a body fairly vibrating with energy; the riata trailed after him, every little tendency towards a kink taken out of it.
“Dios! What a caballo is that white one!” Dade heard a Salinas man exclaim, and flushed at the praise.
Back they came, Jack and Surry, with Jack ten feet in advance of the horse; for Jose had chosen to remain at the southern end, with the sun at his left shoulder. Jack, for all his eagerness to begin, found time to shake hands with Bill and say a word to some others as he passed–and those eyes up there that watched did not miss one single movement.
“Look, you! The gringo is telling his friends adios while he may!” some one shouted loudly from across the arena; and a great laugh roared from the throats that were dark, and handclapping at the witticism made the speaker a self-conscious caballero indeed.
At the corral, which was his starting-point, Jack took up the dragging riata, and with his handkerchief wiped off the dust while he coiled it again; hung it over the saddle horn and waited for the signal.
He was scowling now at certain remarks that came to his ears from the seats, with titters and chuckles to point their wit. But he sent a cheering eye-signal to Dade, whose face was strained and noticeably white under the tan.
Half-way down the line, among the Americans, there was a little stir, and then a pistol barked with that loud crash which black powder makes. Jack, on the instant when the smoke curled up in a little, balloon-like puff, turned and leaped into the saddle. The duel of riatas was begun.
FOR LOVE AND A MEDAL
Down the roped lane thundered Jose, whirling his riata over his head till the loop had taken full twenty of the sixty feet of rawhide.
Galloping to meet him, Jack gave his rope a forward, downward fling and formed a little loop–a loop not one-third the size of Jose’s–and held it dangling beside Surry’s shoulder. So, at the very start, they showed themselves different in method, even though they might be the same in skill.
They met, with fifteen feet between them as they flashed past. Jose flung out his lifted hand. The loop hissed and shot straight for Jack’s head.
Jack flung out his little loop, struck the big one fairly, and threw it aside. Even so, the end might have caught him, but for the lengthening lunge which Surry made in mid-air. The loop flecked Surry’s crinkled tail and he fled on to the far end and stopped in two short, stiff-legged jumps.
As Jack coiled his riata and slid off he heard the caballeros yelling praise of Jose. But he did not mind that in the least. In that one throw he had learned Jose’s method; the big loop, the overhead swirl–direct, bullet-swift, deadly in its aim. He knew now what Dade had wanted to tell him–what it was vital that he should know. And–he hugged the thought–Jose did not know his method; not yet.
A shot, and he was off again with his little loop. Jose, like a great, black bird, flew towards him with the big loop. As they neared he saw Jose’s teeth show in the smile of hate. He waited, his little loop ready for the fling should his chance come.
Jose was over-eager. The great, rawhide hoop whistled and shot down aslant like the swoop of a nighthawk. Surry’s eye was upon it unwinkingly. He saw where the next leap would bring him within its terrible grip, and he made that leap to one side instead, so that the rawhide thudded into the dust alongside his nose. He swerved again lest Jose in jerking it up should catch his feet, and went on with an exultant toss of his white head. It was the game he knew–the game Diego had played with him many times, to the discomfiture of the peon.
“He is a devil–that white caballo!” cried a chagrined voice from among the vaqueros crowding the ropes so that they bulged inward.
“Hah! devil or no, they will go down, those two white ones! Saw you the look of Jose as he passed? He has been playing with them for the sport of the people. Look you! I have gold on that third throw. The next time–it is as Jose chooses–“
The bark of the pistol cut short the boastings of that vaquero. This was the third pass, and much Spanish gold would be lost upon that throw if Jose missed.
“Three to one, m’ son,” bawled Bill Wilson remindingly, as Jack loped past with his little loop hanging beside him, ready but scarcely seeming so. Jose was coming swiftly, the big horse lunging against the Spanish bit, his knees flung high with every jump he made, like a deer leaping through brush. And there was the great, rawhide loop singing its battle-song over his head, with the soft _who-oo-oo_ before he released it for the flight.
He aimed true–but Surry had also a nice eye for distance. He did not swerve; he simply stiffened every muscle and stopped short. Even as he did so the black horse plunged past; and Jack, lifting his hand, whirled his loop swiftly once to open it, and gave it a backward fling.
Straight past his shoulder it shot, whimpering, following, reaching–the force of the fling carrying it far, far … Jose heard it whining behind him, glanced quickly, thought to beat it to the end of its leash. He leaned far over–farther, so that his cheek touched the flying black mane of his horse. He dug deep with his spurs–but he dug too late.
The little loop narrowed–it had reached as far as sixty feet of rawhide could reach and have any loop at all. It sank, and caught the outflung head of the black horse; slid back swiftly and caught Jose as the horse lunged and swung short around; tightened and pressed Jose’s cheek hard against the black mane as the rawhide drew tight across the back of his neck.
The black horse plunged and tried to back away; the white one stiffened against the pull of the rope. Between the two of them, they came near finishing Jose once for all. And from the side where stood the white men came the vicious sound of a pistol shot.
“Slack, Surry!” Jack, on the ground, glimpsed the purpling face of his foe. “Slack, you devil!”
Near sixty feet he had to run–and Jose was strangling before his eyes; strangling, because Surry’s instant obedience was offset by Jose’s horse, who, facing the other at the first jerk of the riata, backed involuntarily with the pull of the pinioned reins. The Spanish bit was cutting his mouth cruelly, and Jose’s frenzied clawing could not ease the cruel strain upon either of them.
A few terrible seconds, and then Jack overtook them, eaught the horse by the bridle, and stopped him; and the blood which the cruel bit had brought when the spade cut deep, stained Jack’s white clothes red where it fell.
“Slack, Surry! Come on!” he cried, his voice harsh with the stress of that moment. And when the rawhide hung loose between the two horses he freed Jose of the deadly noose, and saw where it had burnt raw the skin of his neck on the side where it touched. A snaky, six-strand riata can be a rather terrible weapon, he decided, while he loosed it and flung it from him.
Jose, for the first time getting breath enough to gasp, tried to straighten himself in the saddle; lurched, and would have gone off on his head if Jack had not put up a hand to steady him. So he led him, a shaken, gasping, disarmed antagonist, across the little space that separated them from where Don Andres and four other Spanish gentlemen sat before the middle gate of the corral.
“Bravo!” cried a sweet, girl voice; and a rose, blood-red and heavy with perfume, fell at Jack’s feet. He gave it one cold glance and let it lie. In another moment the black horse crushed it heedlessly beneath his hoof, as Jack turned to the judges.
“Senors, I bring you Don Jose Pacheco.”
So suddenly had the contest ended that those riders who helped to form the riata fence stood still in their places, as if another round had yet to be fought. Beyond the pistol shot and the girl voice crying well done, the audience was quiet, waiting.
Then Jose, sitting spent upon his horse, lifted a hand that shook weakly. His fingers fumbled at his breast, and he held out the shining medal of gold–the medal with diamonds prisoning the sunlight so that the trinket flashed in his hand.
“Senor,” he said huskily, “the medalla–it is yours.”
Jack looked at him; looked at the bent faces of the frowning judges; looked up at Teresita, watching the two with red lips parted and breath coming quickly; looked again queerly at Jose, gasping still, and holding out to him the medalla oro. Jack did a good deal of thinking in a very short space of time.
“I don’t want your medal,” he said. “Let some Californian fight you for it, if he likes. That is not for a gringo.”
Perhaps there was a shade of the theatrical element in his speech and his manner, but he was perfectly innocent of any such intention; and the people before him were nothing if not dramatic. He got his response in the bravos and the applause that followed the silence of sheer amazement. “Gracias!” they cried, in their impulsive appreciation of his generosity.
“The horse which you offered for a prize, Don Andres, I will claim,” Jack went on, when he could be heard–and he did not wait long, for short-lived indeed is the applause given to an alien. “And I will ride him as soon as you desire.”
“Yes! Let us see him ride that caballo!” cried the fickle mass of humanity. “By a trick of chance he won the duelo, and the medalla he refused because he knows it was not won fairly. Where is that yellow caballo which no man has ridden? Let him show us what he can do with that yellow one!”
Dade, pushing his way exultantly toward him, saw the blaze of anger at their fickleness leap into Jack’s eyes.
“Si, I will show you!” he called out. “It is well that you should see some horsemanship! Bring the yellow caballo, then. Truly, I will show you what I can do.”
“Come, Surry,” called Dade, and the white horse walked up to him and nibbled playfully his bearskin chaparejos. “Solano’s in the little corral, off this big one. I’ll bring your saddle–“
“I don’t want any saddle. I’m going to ride him bareback, with a rope over his nose. Let me have your spurs, will you? Did you hear them say I won the duel with luck? I’ll show these greasers what a gringo can do!” He spoke in Spanish, to show his contempt of their opinion of him, and he curled his lip at the jibes they began to fling down at him; the jibes and the taunts–and vague threats as well, when those who had wagered much upon the duelo began to reckon mentally their losings.
In the adobe corral he stood with his riata coiled in his hand and Dade’s spurs upon his heels, and waited until Solano, with a fling of heels into the air, rushed in from the pen where the big bull had waited until he was let out to fight the grizzly.
“Bareback he says he will ride that son of Satanas!” jeered a wine-roughened voice. “Boaster that he is, look you how he stands! He is afraid even to lasso that yellow one!”
Jack was indeed deliberate in his movements. He stood still while the horse circled him twice with head and tail held high. When Solano brought up with a flourish on the far side of the corral, Jack turned to Dade and Valencia standing guard at the main gate, their horses barring the opening.
“See that it’s kept clear out in front,” he told them. “I’ll come out a-flying when I do come, most likely.”
Whereat those who heard him laughed derisively. “Never to the gate will you ride him, gringo–even so you touch his back! Not twice will the devil give you luck,” they yelled, while they scrambled for the choicest positions.
Jack, standing in the center quietly, smiled at them, and gave the flip downward and forward that formed the little loop to which he seemed so partial. He tossed that loop upward, straight over his head; a careless little toss, it looked to those who watched. His hand began to rotate upon his supple wrist joint–and like a live corkscrew the rawhide loop went up, and up, and up, and grew larger while it climbed.
Solano snorted; and the noise was like a gun in the dead silence while those thousands watched this miracle of a rawhide riata that apparently climbed of its own accord into the air.
The loop, a good ten feet in diameter, swirled horizontally over his head. The coil in his hand was paid out until there was barely enough to give him power over the rest. His hand gave a quick motion sidewise, and the loop dropped true, and settled over the head of Solano.
Jack flung a foot backward and braced himself for the pull, the riata drawn across one thigh in the “hip-hold” which cowboys use to-day when they rope from the ground. Solano gave one frightened lunge and brought up trembling with surprise.
That he knew nothing of the feel of a rope worked now to Jack’s advantage, for sheer astonishment held the horse quiet. A flip, and the riata curled in a half-hitch over Solano’s nose; and Jack was edging slowly towards him, his hands moving along the taut riata like a sailor climbing a rope.
Solano backed, shook his head futilely, snorted, and rolled his eyes–mere frills of resentment that formed no real opposition to Jack’s purpose. Five minutes of maneuvering to get close, and Jack had twisted his fingers in the taffy-colored mane; he went up, and landed fairly in the middle of Solano’s rounded back and began swiftly coiling the trailing riata.
“Get outa the way, there!” he yelled, and raked the big spurs backward when Solano’s forefeet struck the ground after going high in air. Like a bullet they went out of that corral and across the open space where the duel had been fought, with Dade and Valencia spurring desperately after.
It took a long ten minutes to bring Solano back, chafing, but owning Jack’s mastery–for the time being, at least. He returned to a sullen audience, save where the Americans cheered him from their side of the corral.
“He is a devil–that blue-eyed one!” the natives were saying grudgingly to one another; but they were stubborn and would not cheer. “Saw you ever a riata thrown as he threw it? Not Jose Pacheco himself ever did so impossible a thing; truly the devil is in that gringo.” So they muttered amongst themselves when he came back to the corral and slipped, laughing, from Solano’s sweat-roughened back.
“You can have your Surry!” he cried boastfully to Dade, who was the first to reach him. “Give me a month to school him, and this yellow horse will be mighty near as good as your white one. I’d rather have him than forty gold medals!”
“Senor,”–it was Jose, his neck wrapped in a white handkerchief, coming forward from where he had sat with Don Andres–“Senor, I am sorry that I did not kill you; but yet I admire your skill, and I wish to thank you for your generosity; the medalla is not mine, even though you refuse it. Since I have found one better than I, Don Andres shall keep the medalla until I or some other caballero has won it fairly. For my life, which you also refused to take, I–cannot thank you.”
Jack looked at him intently. “You will thank me,” he said grimly, “later on.”
Jose’s face went white. “Senor, you do not mean–“
“I do mean–just that.”
“But, Senor–” There are times when pride drops away from the proudest man and leaves him weak to the very core of him; weak and humbled beyond words.
Big Jerry Simpson saved that situation from becoming intolerable. With Moll’s great ears flopping solemnly to herald his approach, Jerry rode up, perfectly aware that he brought a murmur of curiosity from those who saw his coming.
For Jerry was leading Manuel by the ear; Manuel with his hands tied behind him with Jerry’s red bandanna; Manuel with his lips drawn away from his teeth in the desire to kill, and his eyes sullen with the impotence of that desire.
“Sa-ay,” drawled Jerry, when he came up to the little group, “what d’ye want done with this here greaser that fired on Jack? Some of the fellers over there wanted to take him out and hang him, but I kinda hated to draw attention away from Jack’s p’formance–which was right interesting. Bill Wilson, he reckoned I better fetch him over here and ask you fellers about it; Bill says this mob of greasers might make a fuss if the agony’s piled on too thick, but whatever you say will be did.” With his unoccupied hand he helped himself to a generous chew of tobacco, and spat gravely into the dust.
“Fer as I’m concerned,” he drawled lazily, “I’m willin’ to help string him up. He done as dirty a trick as ever I seen, and he done it deliberate. I had m’ eye peeled fer him all the time, and I seen he wasn’t goin’ to stand back and let Jack git the best of that greaser if he could help it. He was cunnin’–but shucks! I see all along why he kept that gun p’inted out front–“
“Turn him loose,” said Dade suddenly, interrupting him. “We don’t want to start any trouble, Jerry. He may need hanging, but we can’t afford to give him what he deserves. It’s a ticklish crowd, right now; they’ve lost a lot on the duel, and they’ve drunk enough wine to swim a mule. Turn him loose. I mean it,” he added, when he caught the incipient rebellion in Jerry’s weather-beaten face. “I’m bossing things here to-day. He didn’t hit anybody, and I’m beginning to think we can get through the day without any real trouble, if we go easy.”
“Wa-al–” Jerry scratched his stubbly jaw reflectively with his free hand, and looked down at his captive. “I’ll give him a derned good wallopin’, then, just to learn him manners. I’ve been wantin’ to lick him since yesterday mornin’ when he tried to drive off Bawley and Lay-fayette and William Penn. I lost two hours off’n my work, argyin’ with him. I’ll take that outa his hide, right now.”
He induced Moll to turn around, and led Manuel away from the presence of the women lest they should be shocked at his deed; and on the cool side of the farthest shed he did indeed give Manuel a “derned good walloping.” After which he took a fresh chew of tobacco, lounged over to where Moll waited and switched desultorily at the flies, mounted, and went placidly home to his Mary.
* * * * *
Bill Wilson, having collected their winnings and his own, sought Dade and Jack, where they were lying under the shade of a sycamore just beyond the rim of the crowd chattering shrilly of the later events. With a grunt of relief to be rid of the buzzing, Bill flung himself down beside them and plucked a cigar from an inner pocket.
“Say,” he began, after he had bitten off the end of the cigar and had moistened the whole with his tongue. “Them greasers sure do hate to come forward with their losings! Some bets I never will be able to collect; but I got a lot–enough to pay for the trouble of coming down.” He rolled over upon his back and lay smoking and looking up into the mottled branches of the tree; thought of something, and lifted himself to an elbow so that he faced Jack.
“Sa-ay, I thought you said you was going to kill that greaser,” he challenged quizzically.
Jack shrugged his shoulders, took two long draws on his cigarette, and blew one of his pet smoke-rings. “I did.” He moistened his lips and blew another ring. “At least, I killed the biggest part of him–and that’s his pride.”
Bill grunted, lay down again, and stared up at the wide-pronged sycamore leaves. “Darn my oldest sister’s cat’s eyes if I ever seen anything like it!” he exploded suddenly, and closed his eyes in a vast content.
From the barbecue pits there came an appetizing odor of roasting beef; high-keyed voices flung good-humored taunts, and once they heard a great shout of laughter surge through the crowd gathered there. From the great platform built under a group of live oaks near the patio they heard the resonant plunk-plunk-plunk of a harp making ready for the dance, and the shrill laughter of slim senoritas hovering there. Down the slope before the three the shadows stretched longer and longer. A violin twanged in the tuning, the harp-strings crooning the key.
“You fellows are going to dance, ain’t yuh?” Bill inquired lazily, when his cigar was half gone to ashes and smoke. “Jack, here, can get pardners enough to keep him going fer a week–judging by the eyes them Spanish girls have been making at him since the duel and the horse-breaking.
“Say! How about that sassy-eyed Picardo girl? I ain’t seen you and her in speaking distance all day; and the way you was buzzing around her when I was down here before–“
“Say, Jack,” Dade interrupted, diplomacy winning against politeness, “I never dreamed you’d have the nerve to try that fancy corkscrew throw of yours before all that crowd. Why, after two years to get out of practice, you took an awful chance of making a fool of yourself! Y’see, Bill,” he explained with a deliberate garrulity, “that throw he made when he caught the horse was the finest bit of rope-work that’s been done to-day. I don’t believe there’s another man in the crowd that could do it; and the chances are they never saw it done before, even! I know I never saw but one man beside Jack that could do it. Jack was always at it, when we happened to be laying around with nothing to do, and I know he had to keep his hand in, or he’d make a fizzle of it. Of course,” he conceded, “you didn’t miss–but if you had–Wow!” He shook his head at the bare possibility.
Jack grinned at him. “I’m not saying how much moonlight I used up, practicing out in the orchard when everybody else was asleep. I reckon I’ve made that corkscrew five thousand times in the last three weeks!”
“Where you belong,” bantered Dade, “is on the stage. You do love to create a sensation, better than any one I ever–“
“Senors–” Diego came hurriedly out of the shadows behind them. “The patron begs that you will honor his table by dining with him to-night. In one little half-hour will he hope to see you; and Don Jose Pacheco will also be happy to meet the senors, if it is the pleasure of the senors to meet him and dine in his company. The patron,” added Diego, with the faintest suspicion of a twinkle in his pensive black eyes, “desires also that I shall extend to you the deep regret of the senora and the senorita because it will be impossible for them to be present.”
The three looked at one another, and in Bill’s eyes dawned slowly the light of understanding.
“Tell the patron we are honored by the invitation, and that it gives us much pleasure to accept,” Dade replied for the three of them, after a moment spent in swift, mental measuring of the situation. “Jack, you’ve got to get them bloody clothes off, and some decent ones on. Come on, Bill; half an hour ain’t any too much time to get ready in.”
Half-way to the house they walked without saying a word. Then Dade, walking between the two, suddenly clapped a hand down upon the shoulder of each.
“Say, I could holler my head off!” he exulted. “I’m going to quit worrying about anything, after this; the nights I’ve laid awake and worried myself purple over this darned fiesta–or the duel, rather! And things are turning out smooth as a man could ask.
“Jack, I’m proud to death of you, and that’s a fact. With that temper of yours, I kinda looked for you to get this whole outfit down on you; but the way you acted, I don’t believe there’s a man here, except Manuel, that’s got any real grudge against you, even if they did lose a lot of money on the fight. And it’s all the way you behaved, old boy–like a prince! Just–like a–blamed prince!”
“Oh, I don’t know–Jose acted pretty white, himself. You’ve got to admit that it’s Jose that took the fight out of the crowd. I’m glad–” He did not finish the sentence, and they were considerate enough not to insist that he should.
* * * * *
Warm sunlight, and bonfires fallen to cheerless, charred embers and ashes gone gray; warm sunlight, and eyes grown heavy with the weariness of surfeited pleasure. Bullock carts creaked again, their squealing growing gradually fainter as the fat-jowled senoras lurched home to the monotony of life, while the senoritas drowsed and dreamed, and smiled in their dreaming.
At the corrals, red-lidded caballeros cursed irritably the horses they saddled. In the patio Don Andres gave dignified adieu to the guests that still lingered. The harp was shrouded and dumb upon the platform, the oaken floor polished and dark with the night-long slide of slippered feet. The fiesta was slipping out of the present into the past, where it would live still under the rose-lights of memory.
There was a scurry of little feet in the rose-garden. A door slammed somewhere and hushed the sound of sobbing. A senorita–a young and lovely senorita who had all her life been given her way–fled to her room in a great rage, because for once her smiles had not thawed the ice which her anger had frozen.
The senorita flung something upon the floor and trampled it with her little slipper-heels; a rose, blood-red and withered, yet heavy with perfume still; a rose, twin to the one upon which the black horse of Jose had set his foot in the arena. A note she tore in little bits, with fingers that tingled still from the slap she had given to Diego, who had brought it. She flung the fragments from her, and the writing was fine and feminine in every curve–her own, if you wish to know; the note she had sent, twenty-four hours before, to her blue-eyed one whom she had decided to forgive.
“Santa Maria!” she gasped, and gritted her teeth afterwards. “This, then, is what he meant–that insolent one! ‘After the fiesta will I send the answer’–so he told that simpering maid who took my letter and the rose. And the answer, then, is my rose and my letter returned, and no word else. Madre de Dios! That he should flout me thus! Now will I tell Jose to kill him–and kill him quickly. For that blue-eyed gringo I hate!” Then she flung herself across her bed and wept.
Let the tender-hearted be reassured. The senorita slid from sobbing into slumber, and her dreams were pleasant, so that she woke smiling. That night she sang a love-song to Jose, behind the passion vines; and her eyes were soft; and when young Don Jose pulled her fingers from the guitar strings and kissed them many times, her only rebuke was such a pursing of lips that they were kissed also for their mutiny.
After awhile the senorita sang again, while Jose, his neck held a little to one side because of his hurt, watched her worshipfully, and forgot how much he had suffered because of her. She was seventeen, you see, and she was lovely to look upon; and as for a heart–perhaps she would develop one later.
The sun was sliding past the zenith when Jack yawned himself awake. He lay frowning at the ceiling as if he were trying to remember something, sat up when recollection came, and discovered that Dade was already up and getting into his jacket.
“Dade, let’s go back to the mine,” he suggested abruptly, reaching for his boots. “You aren’t crazy about this job here, are you? I know you didn’t want to take it, at first.”
“And I know you bullied me into it,” Dade retorted, with some acrimony. He had danced until his feet burned with fatigue, and there was the reaction from a month of worry to roughen his mood. Also, he had yet to digest the amazing fact that the sight of Teresita had not hurt him so very much–not one quarter as much as he had expected it would do. Now, here was Jack proposing to leave, just when staying would be rather agreeable!
“Well–but times have changed, since then. I’m ready to go.” Jack pulled on a boot and stamped his foot snugly into it. “What’s more, I’m going!”
“You’ll eat, first, won’t you?”
Jack passed over the sarcasm. “No, sir, I won’t. I’m not going to swallow another mouthful on this ranch. I held myself down till that damned fiesta was over, because I didn’t want folks to say I was scared off. But now–I’m going, just as quick as the Lord’ll let me get a saddle on that yellow mustang.”
“Why, I nothing! I’m going. If you want to go along, you can; but I won’t drag you off by the heels. You can suit yourself.” He stamped himself into the other boot, went over and splashed cold water into his eyes and upon his head, shook off the drops that clung to his hair, made a few violent passes with towel and brush, and reached for his sombrero.
“It’s a long ways to ride on an empty stomach,” Dade reminded him dryly.
“We can stop at Jerry Simpson’s and eat. That won’t be more than a mile or so out of the way.” Jack’s hand was on the latch.
“And that yellow horse ain’t what you can call trail-broke.”
“He will be, by the time I get to the mine!”
Dade threw out both hands in surrender. “Oh, well–you darned donkey, give me time to tell Don Andres good-by, anyway.”
Jack’s eyes lighted with the smile Dade knew and loved to see. “Dade, they don’t make ’em any better than you,” he cried, and left the door to try and break a shoulder-blade with the flat of his hand, just to show his appreciation of such friendship. “Bill Wilson has got enough gold that he pulled out of the crowd for us yesterday to grub-stake us for a good long while, and–I can’t get out of this valley a minute too soon to suit me,” he confessed. “You go on and hunt up Don Andres, while I tackle Solano. I’ll wait for you–but don’t ask me to stay till after dinner, because I won’t do it.
“We don’t want to go off without saying good-by to Jerry and his wife, anyway; and we’ll beg a meal from the old Turk, and listen to some more yarns about Tige, just to show we’re friendly. I’ll have Surry saddled, so all you’ve got to do is make your talk to the don and pack your socks.”
Dade grinned and followed him outside. “Good thing I’m used to you,” he commented grimly, “or my head would be whirling, right now.” Not a word, you will observe, as to whether his own interests would be furthered by this sudden departure; but that was Dade’s way. Not a word about the sudden change from last evening, when Jack had eaten at Don Andres’ table and had talked amiably with Jose–amiably in spite of the fact that every one of them understood perfectly that the amiability was but the flowers of courtesy strewn over a formal–and perhaps a temporary–truce. But Jose was not a fixture upon the ranch, and the don’s friendship for the two seemed unchanged.
Dade did not argue nor did he question. Barring details, he thought he understood why it was that Jack wanted to go–why it was impossible for him to stay. A girl may be only seventeen and as irresponsible as a kitten, but for all that she may play an important part in the making and the marring of a man’s most practical plans.
When he returned from the house, Don Andres walked beside him. The two of them reached the corral just as Jack released Solano’s foot from the rawhide loop that had held it high while Jack cinched the saddle in place. When Jack saw them he came forward, wiping from his face the beads of perspiration which the tussle had brought there.
“Senor Hunter tells me that you are going away,” Don Andres began almost