Produced by Kevin Handy, Dave Maddock, Gene Smethers and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team
OR, TANG OF LIFE
HENRY HERBERT KNIBBS
AUTHOR OF OVERLAND RED, ETC.
E. BOYD SMITH
[Illustration: Waring of Sonora-Town]
Waring of Sonora-Town
_The heat acrost the desert was a-swimmin’ in the sun, When Waring of Sonora-Town,
Jim Waring of Sonora-Town,
From Salvador come ridin’ down, a-rollin’ of his gun.
He was singin’ low and easy to his pony’s steady feet, But his eye was live and driftin’
Round the scenery and siftin’
All the crawlin’ shadows shiftin’ in the tremblin’ gray mesquite.
Eyes was watchin’ from a hollow where a outlaw Chola lay; Two black, snaky eyes a-yearnin’
For Jim’s hoss to make the turnin’, Then to send a bullet burnin’ through his back–the Chola way.
And Jim Waring’s gaze, a-rovin’ round the desert as he rode, Settled quick–without him seemin’
To get wise and quit his dreamin’– On a shiny ring a-gleamin’ where no ring had ever growed.
The lightnin’ don’t give warnin’; just a lick and she is through; Waring set his gun to smokin’
Playful like, like he was jokin’,
And–a Chola lay a-chokin’ … and a buzzard cut the blue._
I. The Canon
II. Jose Vaca
III. Donovan’s Hand
IV. The Silver Crucifix
V. The Tang of Life
VII. The Return of Waring
IX. High-Chin Bob
X. East and West
XI. Spring Lamb
XII. Bud Shoop and Bondsman
XIII. The Horse Trade
XIV. Bondsman’s Decision
XV. John and Demijohn
XVII. Down the Wind
XVIII. A Piece of Paper
XIX. The Fight in the Open
XX. City Folks
XXI. A Slim Whip of a Girl
XXII. A Tune for Uncle Bud
XXIII. Like One Who Sleeps
XXIV. The Genial Bud
XXV. The Little Fires
XXVI. Idle Noon
XXVIII. A Squared Account
XXIX. Bud’s Conscience
XXX. In the Hills
XXXI. In the Pines
XXXIII. The Fires of Home
XXXIV. Young Life
XXXV. The High Trail
Waring of Sonora-Town
A huddled shape near a boulder
“I came over–to tell you–that it was Pat’s gun”
They made coffee and ate the sandwiches she had prepared
_From drawings by E. Boyd Smith_
TANG OF LIFE
Waring picketed his horse in a dim angle of the Agua Fria Canon, spread his saddle-blanket to dry in the afternoon sun, and, climbing to a narrow ledge, surveyed the canon from end to end with a pair of high-power glasses. He knew the men he sought would ride south. He was reasonably certain that they would not ride through the canon in daylight. The natural trail through the Agua Fria was along the western wall; a trail that he had avoided, working his toilsome way down the eastern side through a labyrinth of brush and rock that had concealed him from view. A few hundred yards below his hasty camp a sandy arroyo crossed the canon’s mouth.
He had planned to intercept the men where the trail crossed this arroyo, or, should the trail show pony tracks, to follow them into the desert beyond, where, sooner or later, he would overtake them. They had a start of twelve hours, but Waring reasoned that they would not do much riding in daylight. The trail at the northern end of the canon had shown no fresh tracks that morning. His problem was simple. The answer would be definite. He returned to the shelter of the brush, dropped the glasses into a saddle-pocket, and stretched himself wearily.
A few yards below him, on a brush-dotted level, his horse, Dexter, slowly circled his picket and nibbled at the scant bunch-grass. The western sun trailed long shadows across the canon; shadows that drifted imperceptibly farther and farther, spreading, commingling, softening the broken outlines of ledge and brush until the walled solitude was brimmed with dusk, save where a red shaft cleft the fast-fading twilight, burning like a great spotlight on a picketed horse and a man asleep, his head pillowed on a saddle.
As the dusk drew down, the horse ceased grazing, sniffed the coming night, and nickered softly. Waring rose and led the horse to water, and, returning, emptied half the grain in the morral on a blanket. Dex munched contentedly. When the horse had finished eating the grain, Waring picketed him in a fresh spot and climbed back to the ledge, where he sat watching the western wall of the canon, occasionally glancing up as some dim star burned through the deepening dusk and bloomed to a silvery maturity.
Presently a faint pallor overspread the canon till it lay like a ghostly sea dotted with strange islands of brush and rock; islands that seemed to waver and shift in a sort of vague restlessness, as though trying to evade the ever-brightening tide of moonlight that burned away their shrouds of dusk and fixed them in still, tangible shapes upon the canon floor.
Across the canon the farther trail ran past a broad, blank wall of rock. No horseman could cross that open space unseen. Waring, seated upon the ledge, leaned back against the wall, watching the angling shadows shorten as the moon drew overhead. Toward morning he became drowsy. As the white radiance paled to gray, he rose and paced back and forth upon the narrow ledge to keep himself awake. In a few minutes the moon would disappear behind the farther rim of the world; the canon would sink back into its own night, all its moonlit imageries melting, vanishing. In the hour before dawn Waring would be unable to see anything of the farther wall save a wavering blur.
Just below him he could discern the outline of his horse, with head lowered, evidently dozing. Having in mind the keenness of desert-bred stock, he watched the horse. The minutes drifted by. The horse seemed more distinct. Waring thought he could discern the picket rope. He endeavored to trace it from horse to picket. Foot by foot his eyes followed its slack outline across the ground. The head of the metal picket glimmered faintly. Waring closed his eyes, nodded, and caught himself. This time he traced the rope from picket to horse. It seemed a childish thing to do, yet it kept him awake. Did he imagine it, or had the rope moved?
Dex had lifted his head. He was sniffing the cool morning air. Slowly the tawny-golden shape of the big buckskin turned, head up and nostrils rounded in tense rings. Waring glanced across the canon. The farther wall was still dim in the half-light. In a few minutes the trail would become distinct. Dropping from the ledge, he stepped to his saddle. Dex evidently heard him, for he twitched back one ear, but maintained his attitude of keen interest in an invisible something–a something that had drawn him from drowsy inanition to a quietly tense statue of alertness. The ash gray of the farther wall, now visible, slowly changed to a faint rose tint that deepened and spread.
Waring stooped and straightened up, with his glasses held on the far trail. A tiny rider appeared in the clear blue circle of the binoculars, and another, who led two horses without saddles or packs. The men were headed south. Presently they disappeared behind a wall of brush. Waring saddled Dex, and, keeping close to the eastern wall, rode toward the arroyo.
The morning sun traced clean, black shadows of the chaparral on the sand. The bloom of cacti burned in red and yellow blotches of flame against its own dull background of grayish-green. At the mouth of the arroyo, Waring dismounted and dropped the reins. Dex nosed him inquiringly. He patted the horse, and, turning, strode swiftly down the dry river-bed. He walked upright, knowing that he could not be seen from the trail. He could even have ridden down the arroyo unseen, and perhaps it was a senseless risk to hunt men afoot in this land. The men he hunted were Mexicans of Sonora; fugitives. They would fight blindly, spurred by fear. Waring’s very name terrorized them. And were they to come upon the gringo mounted, Waring knew that there was more than a chance his horse would be shot. He had a peculiar aversion to running such a risk when there was half a chance of doing his work on foot.
Moreover, certain Americans in Sonora who disliked Waring had said recently that no man was quick enough to get an even break with the gunman, which tentatively placed him as a “killer,” whereas he had never given a thought to the hazard when going into a fight. He had always played the game to win, odds either way. The men he sought would be mounted. He would be on foot. This time the fugitives would have more than a fair chance. They would blunder down the pitch into the arroyo, perhaps glancing back, fearful of pursuit, but apprehending no ambushment.
Waring knew they would kill him if they could. He knew that not even a fighting chance would have been his were they in his place and he in theirs. He was deputized and paid to do just what he was doing. The men were bandits who had robbed the paymaster of the Ortez Mines. To Waring there was nothing complicated about the matter. It was his day’s work. The morning sun would be in their faces, but that was not his fault.
As Waring waited in the arroyo the faint clatter of shod hoofs came from above. He drew close to a cutbank, leaning his shoulder against it easily. With a slither of sand, the first horse took the pitch, legs angled awkwardly as he worked down. The second rider followed, the led horses pulling back.
At the bottom of the arroyo, the Mexicans reined up. The elder, squat, broad of back, a black handkerchief tied round his thick neck, reached into his pocket and drew out tobacco and cigarette papers. The other, hardly more than a boy, urged that they hasten. Fear vibrated in his voice. The squat Mexican laughed and began to roll a cigarette.
None had overtaken them, he said. And were they not now in the Land Where No Man Lived?
“Si!” said Waring softly.
The half-rolled cigarette fluttered to the ground. The Mexican’s heavy lip sagged, showing broken teeth. His companion dropped the lead-rope and turned to gaze at Waring with eyes wide, wondering, curious. The led horses plunged up the back trail. Waring made no movement toward his gun, but he eyed the elder Mexican sharply, paying little attention to the youth. The horse of the squat Mexican grew restless, sidling toward the other.
Waring’s lips tightened. The bandit was spurring his horse on the off side to get behind his companion. Evidently the numbness of surprise had given way to fear, and fear meant action. Waring knew that the elder Mexican would sacrifice his companion for the sake of a chance of killing the gringo.
Waring held out his left hand. “Give me your gun,” he said to the youth. “And hand it down butt first.”
The youth, as though hypnotized, pulled out his gun and handed it to Waring. Waring knew that if the other Mexican meant to fight it would be at that instant. Even as the butt of the gun touched Waring’s hand it jumped. Two shattering reports blended and died echoless in the close-walled arroyo.
The Mexican’s gun slipped slowly from his fingers. He rocked in the saddle, grasped the horn, and slid to the ground. Waring saw him reach for the gun where it lay on the sand. He kicked it aside. The Mexican youth leaped from the saddle and stood between Waring and the fallen man. Waring stepped back. For an instant his eyes drew fine. He was tempted to make an end of it right there. The youth dropped to his knees. A drift of wind fluttered the bandanna at his throat. Waring saw a little silver crucifix gleaming against the smooth brown of his chest.
“If it is that I am to die, I am not afraid,” said the youth. “I have this!” And his fingers touched the crucifix. “But you will not kill my uncle!”
Waring hesitated. He seemed to be listening. And as though in a dream, yet distinct–clear as though he had spoken himself came the words: “It is enough!”
“Not this journey,” said Waring.
The Mexican youth gazed at him wonderingly. Was the gringo mad?
Waring holstered his gun with a jerk. “Get up on your hind legs and quit that glory stuff! We ride north,” he growled.
The young Mexican’s face was beaded with sweat as he rose and stared down at the wounded man. Clumsily he attempted to help Waring, who washed and bandaged the shattered shoulder. Waring had shot to kill, but the gun was not his own, and he had fired almost as it had touched his hand.
“Get your uncle on his horse,” he told the youth. “Don’t make a break. We’re due at Juan Armigo’s ranchito about sundown.”
So far as he was concerned, that was all there was to it for the time being. He had wounded and captured Jose Vaca, notorious in Sonora as leader in outlawry. That there were no others of Vaca’s kind with him puzzled Waring. The young Ramon, Vaca’s nephew, did not count.
Ramon helped his uncle to mount. They glanced at each other, Vaca’s eyes blinking. The gringo was afoot. They were mounted. Waring, observing their attitude, smiled, and, crooking his finger, whistled shrilly. The young Ramon trembled. Other gringos were hidden in the arroyo; perhaps the very man that his uncle had robbed! Even now he could hear the click of hoofs on the gravel. The gunman had been merciful for the moment, only to turn his captives over to the merciless men of the mines; men who held a Mexican’s life worth no more than a dog’s. The wounded man, stiff in the saddle, turned his head. Round a bend in the dry river-bed, his neck held sideways that the reins might drag free, came Waring’s big buckskin horse, Dexter. The horse stopped as he saw the group. Waring spoke to him. The big buckskin stepped forward and nosed Waring, who swung to the saddle and gestured toward the back trail.
They rode in silence, the Mexicans with bowed heads, dull-eyed, listless, resigned to their certain fate. For some strange reason the gringo had not killed them in the arroyo. He had had excuse enough.
Would he take them to Sonora–to the prison? Or would he wait until they were in some hidden fastness of the Agua Fria, and there kill them and leave them to the coyotes? The youth Ramon knew that the two little canvas sacks of gold were cleverly tied in the huge tapaderas of his uncle’s saddle. Who would think to look for them there?
The gringo had said that they would ride to the ranchito of Juan Armigo. How easily the gringo had tricked them at the very moment when they thought they were safe! Yet he had not asked about the stolen money. The ways of this gringo were past comprehension.
Waring paid scant attention to the Mexicans, but he glanced continuously from side to side of the canon, alert for a surprise. The wounded man, Vaca, was known to him. He was but one of the bandits. Ramon, Vaca’s nephew, was not of their kind, but had been led into this journey by Vaca that the bandit might ride wide when approaching the ranchos and send his nephew in for supplies.
The pack on Ramon’s saddle rode too lightly to contain anything heavier than food. There was nothing tied to Vaca’s saddle but a frayed and faded blanket. Yet Waring was certain that they had not cached the gold; that they carried it with them.
At noon they watered the horses midway up the canon. As they rode on again, Waring noticed that Vaca did not thrust his foot clear home in the stirrup, but he attributed this to the other’s condition. The Mexican was a sick man. His swarthy face had gone yellow, and he leaned forward, clutching the horn. The heat was stagnant, unwavering. The pace was desperately slow.
Despite his vigilance, Waring’s mind grew heavy with the monotony. He rolled a cigarette. The smoke tasted bitter. He flung the cigarette away. The hunting of men had lost its old-time thrill. A clean break and a hard fight; that was well enough. But the bowed figures riding ahead of him: ignorant, superstitious, brutal; numb to any sense of honor. Was the game worth while? Yet they were men–human in that they feared, hoped, felt hunger, thirst, pain, and even dreamed of vague successes to be attained how or when the Fates would decide. And was this squalid victory a recompense for the risks he ran and the hardships he endured?
Again Waring heard the Voice, as though from a distance, and yet the voice was his own: “You will turn back from the hunting of men.”
“Like hell I will!” muttered Waring.
Ramon, who rode immediately ahead of him, turned in the saddle. Waring gestured to him to ride on.
The heat grew less intense as an occasional, vagrant breeze stirred in the brush and fluttered the handkerchief round Waring’s throat. Ahead, the canon broadened to the mesa lands, where the distant green of a line of trees marked the boundary of the Armigo rancho.
Presently Vaca began to sing; softly at first, then with insane vehemence as the fever mounted to his brain. Waring smiled with dry lips. The Mexican had stood the journey well. A white man in Vaca’s condition would have gone to pieces hours ago. He called to Ramon, who gave Vaca water. The Mexican drank greedily, and threw the empty canteen into the bushes.
Waring listened for some hint, some crazy boast as to the whereabouts of the stolen money. But Vaca rode on, occasionally breaking into a wild song, half Yaqui, half Mexican. The youth Ramon trembled, fearing that the gringo would lose patience.
Across the northern end of the canon the winnowing heat waves died to the level of the ground. Brown shadows shot from the western wall and spread across the widening outlet. The horses stepped briskly, knowing that they were near water.
Waring became more alert as they approached the adobe buildings of the rancho. Vaca had drifted into a dull silence. Gray with suffering and grim with hate for the gringo, he rode stolidly, praying incoherently that the gunman might be stricken dead as he rode.
The raw edge of the disappearing sun leveled a long flame of crimson across the mesa. The crimson melted to gold. The gold paled to a brief twilight. A faint star twinkled in the north.
Dogs crowded forward in the dusk, challenging the strange riders. A figure filled the lighted doorway of the Armigo ranch-house. The dogs drew back.
Ramon dismounted and helped his uncle down. Waring sat his horse until Juan Armigo stepped from the doorway and asked who came. Waring answered with his name.
“Si! Si!” exclaimed Armigo. “The senor is welcome.”
Waring dismounted. “Juan, I have two of your friends here; Jose Vaca and Ramon Ortego.”
Armigo seemed surprised. “Jose Vaca is wounded?” he queried hesitatingly.
“And the horses; they shall have feed, water, everything–I myself–“
“Thanks. But I’ll look after the horses, Juan. I’m taking Vaca and Ramon to Sonora. See what you can do for Vaca. He’s pretty sick.”
“It shall be as the senor says. And the senor has made a fight?”
“With those hombres? Not this journey! Jose Vaca made a mistake; that’s all.”
Armigo, perturbed, shuffled to the house. Waring unsaddled the horses and turned them into the corral. As he lifted the saddle from Vaca’s horse, he hesitated. It was a big stock saddle and heavy; yet it seemed too heavy. On his knees he turned it over, examining it. He smiled grimly as he untied the little canvas sacks and drew them from the tapaderas.
“Thought he showed too much boot for a hard-riding chola,” muttered Waring.
He rose and threw some hay to the horses. He could hear Ramon and Armigo talking in the ranch-house. Taking his empty canteen from his own saddle, he untied the sacks and slipped the gold-pieces, one by one, into the canteen. He scooped up sand and filled the canteen half full. The gold no longer jingled as he shook it.
While Waring had no fear that either of the men would attempt to escape, he knew Mexicans too well to trust Armigo explicitly. A thousand dollars was a great temptation to a poor rancher. And while Armigo had always professed to be Waring’s friend, sympathy of blood and the appeal of money easily come by might change the placid face of things considerably.
Waring strode to the house, washed and ate with Juan in the kitchen; then he invited the Mexican out to the corral.
“Jose and Ramon are your countrymen, Juan.”
“Si, senor. I am sorry for Ramon. This thing was not of his doing. He is but a boy–“
Waring touched the other’s arm. “There will be no trouble, Juan. Only keep better track of your horses while I ride this part of the country.”
“I’ve had business with you before. Two of your cayuses are astray down the Agua Fria. One of them is dragging a maguey lead-rope.”
“Senor, it is impossible!”
“No, it isn’t! I know your brand. See here, Juan. You knew that Vaca was trying to get away. You knew I’d be sent to get him. Why did you let him take two spare horses?”
“But, senor, I swear I did not!”
“All right. Then when Ramon rode in here two days ago and asked you for two horses, why didn’t you refuse him? Why did you tell him you would sell them, but that you would not lend them to him?”
“If Ramon says that, he lies. I told Ramon–“
“Thanks. That’s all I want to know. I don’t care what you told Ramon. You let him take the horses. Now, I’m going to tell you something that will be worth more to you than gold. Don’t try to rope any stock grazing round here to-night. I might wake up quick and make a mistake. Men look alike in the moonlight–and we’ll have a moon.”
“It shall be as the senor says. It is fate.”
“All right, amigo. But it isn’t fate. It’s making fool mistakes when you or your countrymen tackle a job like Vaca tackled. Just get me a couple of blankets. I’ll sleep out here to-night.”
Juan Armigo plodded to the adobe. The lamplight showed his face beaded with sweat. He shuffled to an inner room, and came out with blankets on his arm. Vaca lay on a bed-roll in the corner of the larger room, and near him stood Ramon.
“The senor sleeps with the horses,” said Armigo significantly.
Ramon bent his head and muttered a prayer.
“And if you pray,” said Armigo, shifting the blankets from one arm to the other, “pray then that the two horses that you borrowed may return. As for your Uncle Jose, he will not die.”
“And we shall be taken to the prison,” said Ramon.”
“You should have killed the gringo.” And Armigo’s tone was matter-of-fact. “Or perhaps told him where you had hidden the gold. He might have let you go, then.”
Ramon shook his head. Armigo’s suggestion was too obviously a question as to the whereabouts of the stolen money.
The wounded man opened his eyes. “I have heard,” he said faintly. “Tell the gringo that I will say where the money is hidden if he will let me go.”
“It shall be as you wish,” said Armigo, curious to learn more of the matter.
At the corral he delivered Vaca’s message to Waring, who feigned delight at the other’s information.
“If that is so, Tio Juan,” he laughed, “you shall have your share–a hundred pesos. Leave the blankets there by my saddle. We will go to the house.”
From the coolness of night, with its dim radiance of stars, to the accumulated heat of the interior of the adobe was an unpleasant change. The walls were whitewashed and clean enough, but the place smelled strongly of cooking. A lamp burned on the oilcloth-covered table. Ramon, wide-eyed with trepidation, stood by his uncle, who had braced himself on his elbow as Waring approached. Waring nodded pleasantly and rolled a cigarette. Jose Vaca glared up at him hungrily. The lower lip, pendulous, showed his broken teeth. Waring thought of a trapped wolf. Juan glanced from one to the other.
But the gringo seemed incurious, merely gazing at the pictures on the walls; a flaming print of the Madonna, one of the Christ, a cheap photograph of Juan and his senora taken on their wedding day, an abalone shell on which was painted something resembling a horse and rider–
“The gold is hidden in the house of Pedro Salazar, of Sonora. It is buried in the earth beneath his bed.”
Jose Vaca had spoken, but Waring was watching Ramon’s eyes.
“All right, hombre. Muchas gracias.”
“And now you will let me go?” queried Vaca.
“I haven’t said so.” Waring’s tone was pleasant, almost indifferent.
Ramon’s face was troubled. Of what use was it to try and deceive the gringo? But Waring was smiling. Did he, then, believe such an obvious lie?
“Bueno!” Waring exclaimed. “That lets _you_ out. Now, what about you, Ramon?”
“My uncle has spoken,” said Ramon. “I have nothing to say.”
“Then you will ride with me to Sonora.”
“As you say, senor.”
“All right. Don’t sit up all night praying. That won’t do any good. Get some sleep. And you, too, Juan.” And Waring turned quickly to Armigo. “Sleep all you can. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
Waring turned and strode out. In the corral he spread his blankets. With his head on the saddle, he lay gazing up at the stars.
The horses, with the exception of Waring’s buckskin Dex, huddled in one corner of the corral. That strange shape stretched quietly on the ground was new to them.
For a long time the horse Dex stood with head lowered and one hip sagged as he rested. Just before Waring slept he felt a gentle nosing of his blankets. The big horse sniffed curiously.
“Strange blankets, eh?” queried Waring drowsily. “But it’s the same old partner, Dex.”
The horse walked slowly away, nosing along the fence. Waring knew that he was well sentineled. The big buckskin would resent the approach of a stranger by snorting. Waring turned on his side and slept. His day’s work was done.
Waring was up with the first faint streak of dawn. He threw hay to the horses and strode briskly to the adobe. Juan Armigo was bending over the kitchen stove. Waring nodded to him and stepped to the next room. The Mexicans were asleep; young Ramon lying face down beneath the crucifix on the wall, where he had knelt in prayer most of the night.
Waring drew back quietly.
“Let them sleep,” he told Juan in the kitchen.
After frijoles and coffee, the gunman rose and gestured to Juan to follow him.
Out near the corral, Waring turned suddenly. “You say that young Ramon is straight?”
“Si, senor. He is a good boy.”
“Well, he’s in dam’ bad company. How about Vaca?”
Juan Armigo shrugged his shoulders.
“Are you afraid of him, Juan?”
“No. But if he were to ask me for anything, it would be well to let him have it.”
“I see. So he sent young Ramon in here for two extra horses, and you were afraid to refuse. I had thought you were an honest man. After I have gone, go hunt up those horses in the canon. And if any one from Sonora rides in here and asks about Ramon or Vaca or me, you don’t know anything about us. Sabe? If your horses are found before you get to them, some one stole them. Do these things. I don’t want to come back to see if you have done them.”
Juan Armigo nodded, gazing at Waring with crafty eyes. So the gringo was tempted by the gold. He would ride back to Sonora, find the stolen money in the house of Pedro Salazar, and keep it. It would be a very simple thing to do. Young Ramon would be afraid to speak and Jose Vaca would have disappeared. The gringo could swear that he had not found the bandits or the gold. So reasoned Juan, his erstwhile respect for the gunman wavering as the idea became fixed. He grinned at Waring. It would be a good trick; to steal the gold from the stealers. Of a certainty the gringo was becoming almost as subtle as a Mexican.
Waring was not pleased as he read the other’s eyes, but he said nothing. Turning abruptly, he entered the corral and saddled Ramon’s horse and his own.
“Get Jose Vaca out of here as soon as he can travel,” he told Armigo. “You may have to explain if he is found here.” And Waring strode to the adobe.
Ramon was awake and talking with his uncle. Waring told him to get something to eat. Then he turned to Vaca.
“Jose,” he began pleasantly, “you tried to get me yesterday, but you only spoiled a good Stetson. See? You shot high. When you go for a man again, start in at his belt-buckle and get him low. We’ll let that go this time. When you can ride, take your cayuse and fan it anywhere–_but don’t ride back to Sonora_. I’ll be there. I’m going to herd young Ramon back home. He is isn’t your kind. You are free. Don’t jabber. Just tell all that to your saints. And if you get caught, don’t say that you saw me. Sabe?”
The wounded man raised himself on his elbow, glaring up at Waring with feverish eyes. “You give me my life. I shall not speak.”
“Bueno! And you said in the house of Pedro Salazar?”
“Si! Near the acequia.”
“The Placeta Burro. I know the place. You’ll find your horse and a saddle when you are able to ride.”
The bandit’s eyes glistened as he watched Waring depart. If the gringo entered the house of Pedro Salazar, he would not find the gold and he would not come out alive. The gringo gunman had killed the brother of Pedro Salazar down in the desert country years ago. And Salazar had had nothing to do with the Ortez Mine robbery. Vaca thought that the gold was still safe in his tapaderas. The gringo was a fool.
Waring led the two saddled horses to the house. Ramon, coming from the kitchen, blinked in the sunlight.
“It is my horse, but not my saddle, senor.”
“You are an honest man,” laughed Waring. “But we won’t change saddles. Come on!”
Ramon mounted and rode beside Waring until they were out of sight of the ranch-house, when Waring reined up.
“Where is that money?” he asked suddenly.
“I do not know, senor.”
“Did you know where it was yesterday?”
Ramon hesitated. Was this a trap? Waring’s level gaze held the young Mexican to a straight answer.
“Si, senor. I knew–yesterday.”
“You knew; but you didn’t talk up when your uncle tried to run me into Pedro Salazar.”
“I–he is of my family.”
“Well, I don’t blame you. I see that you can keep from talking when you have to. And now is your chance to do a lot of keeping still. I’m going to ride into Sonora ahead of you. When you get in, go home and forget that you made this journey. If your folks ask where your uncle is, tell them that he rode south and that you turned back. Because you did didn’t lie to me, and because you did didn’t show yellow, I’m going to give you a chance to get out of this. I let your uncle go because he would have given you away to save himself the minute I jailed him in Sonora. It’s up to you to keep out of trouble. You’ve had a scare that ought to last you. Take your time and hit Sonora about sundown. Adios.”
Waring whirled his horse. “A good rider shoves his foot clear home,” he called as he loped away.
Ramon sat his horse, gazing at the little puffs of dust that shot from the hoofs of the big buckskin. Surely the gringo was mad! Yet he was a man of big heart. Perplexed, stunned by the realization that he was alone and free, the young Mexican gazed about him. Waring was a tiny figure in the distance. Ramon dismounted and examined the empty tapaderas.
Heretofore he had considered subtlety, trickery, qualities to be desired, and not incompatible with honor. In a flash he realized the difference, the distinction between trickery and keenness of mind. He had been awed by his uncle’s reputation and proud to name him of this family. Now he saw him for what he was. “My Uncle Jose is a bad man,” he said to himself. “The other,–the gringo whom men call ‘The Killer,’–he is a hard man, but assuredly he is not bad.”
When Ramon spoke to his horse his voice trembled. His hand drifted up to the little silver crucifix on his breast. A vague glimmer of understanding, a sense of the real significance of the emblem heartened him to face the journey homeward and the questions of his kin. And, above all, he felt an admiration for the gringo that grew by degrees as he rode on. He could follow such a man to the end of the world, even across the border of the Great Unknown, for surely such a leader would not lose the way.
* * * * *
Three men sat in the office of the Ortez Mines, smoking and saying little. Donovan, the manager; the paymaster, Quigley; and the assistant manager, a young American fresh from the East. Waring’s name was mentioned. Three days ago he had ridden south after the bandits. He might return. He might not.
“I’d like to see him ride in,” said Donovan, turning to the paymaster.
“And you hate him at that,” said Quigley.
“I don’t say so. But if he was paymaster here, he’d put the fear of God into some of those greasers.”
Quigley flushed. “You didn’t hire me to chase greasers, Donovan. I’m no gunman.”
“No,” said Donovan slowly. “I had you sized up.”
“Oh, cut out that stuff!” said the assistant manager, smiling. “That won’t balance the pay-roll.”
“No. But I’m going to cut down expenses.” And Donovan eyed Quigley. “Jim Waring is too dam’ high and mighty to suit me. Every time he tackles a job he is the big boss till it’s done. If he comes back, all right. If he don’t–we’ll charge it up to profit and loss. But his name goes off the pay-roll to-day.”
Quigley grinned. He knew that Donovan was afraid of Waring. Waring was the one man in Donovan’s employ that he could not bully. Moreover, the big Irishman hated to pay Waring’s price, which was stiff.
“How about a raise of twenty-five a month, then?” queried Quigley.
To his surprise, Donovan nodded genially. “You’re on, Jack. And that goes the minute Waring shows up with the money. If he doesn’t show up–why, that raise can wait.”
“Then I’ll just date the change to-day,” said Quigley. “Take a look down the street.”
Donovan rose heavily and stepped to the window. “By God, it’s Waring, all right! He’s afoot. What’s that he’s packing?”
“A canteen,” said the assistant manager. “This is a dry country.”
Donovan returned to his desk. “Get busy, at something. We don’t want to sit here like a lot of stuffed buzzards. We’re glad to see Waring back, of course. You two can drift out when I get to talking business with him.”
Quigley nodded and took up his pen. The assistant manager studied a map.
Waring strode in briskly. The paymaster glanced up and nodded, expecting Donovan to speak. But Donovan sat with his back toward Waring, his head wreathed in tobacco smoke. He was apparently absorbed in a letter.
The gunman paused halfway across the office. Quigley fidgeted. The assistant superintendent stole a glance at Donovan’s broad back and smiled. All three seemed waiting for Waring to speak. Quigley rather enjoyed the situation. The assistant superintendent’s scalp prickled with restrained excitement.
He rose and stepped to Donovan. “Mr. Donovan, Mr. Waring is here.”
“Thanks,” said Waring, nodding to the assistant.
Donovan heaved himself round. “Why, hello, Jim! I didn’t hear you come in.”
Waring’s cool gray eyes held Donovan with a mildly contemptuous gaze. Still the gunman did not speak.
“Did you land ’em?” queried Donovan.
Waring shook his head.
“Hell!” exclaimed Donovan. “Then, what’s the answer?”
“Bill, you can’t bluff worth a damn!”
Quigley laughed. The assistant mopped his face with an immaculate handkerchief. The room was hot.
“Bill,” and Waring’s voice was softly insulting, “you can’t bluff worth a damn.”
Donovan’s red face grew redder. “What are you driving at, anyway?”
Quigley stirred and rose. The assistant got to his feet.
“Just a minute,” said Waring, gesturing to them to sit down. “Donovan’s got something on his mind. I knew it the minute I came in. I want you fellows to hear it.”
Donovan flung his half-smoked cigar to the floor and lighted a fresh one. Waring’s attitude irritated him. Officially, Donovan was Waring’s superior. Man to man, the Sonora gunman was Donovan’s master, and the Irishman knew and resented it.
He tried a new tack. “Glad to see you back, Jim.” And he rose and stuck out a sweating hand.
Waring swung the canteen from his shoulder and carefully hung the strap over Donovan’s wrist. “There’s your money, Bill. Count it–and give me a receipt.”
Donovan, with the dusty canteen dangling from his arm, looked exceedingly foolish.
Waring turned to Quigley. “Bill’s got a stroke,” he said, smiling. “Quigley, give me a receipt for a thousand dollars.”
“Sure!” said Quigley, relieved. The money had been stolen from him.
Waring pulled up a chair and leaned his elbows on the table. Quigley unscrewed the cap of the canteen. A stream of sand shot across a map. The assistant started to his feet. Quigley shook the canteen and poured out a softly clinking pile of gold-pieces. One by one he sorted them from the sand and counted them.
“One thousand even. Where’d you overtake Vaca and his outfit?”
“Did I?” queried Waring.
“Well, you got the mazuma,” said Quigley. “And that’s good enough for me.”
Donovan stepped to the table. “Williams, I won’t need you any more to-day.”
The assistant rose and left the office. Donovan pulled up a chair. “Never mind about that receipt, Quigley. You can witness that Waring returned the money. Jim, here, is not so dam’ particular.”
“No, or I wouldn’t be on your pay-roll,” said Waring.
Donovan laughed. “Let’s get down to bed-rock, Jim. I’m paying you your own price for this work. The Eastern office thinks I pay too high. I got a letter yesterday telling me to cut down expenses. This last holdup will make them sore. Here’s the proposition. I’ll keep you on the pay-roll and charge this thousand up to profit and loss. Nobody knows you recovered this money except Williams, and he’ll keep still. Quigley and you and I will split it–three hundred apiece.”
“Suppose I stay out of the deal,” said Waring.
“Why, that’s all right. I guess we can get along.”
Quigley glanced quickly at Waring. Donovan’s proposal was an insult intended to provoke a quarrel that would lead to Waring’s dismissal from the service of the Ortez Mines. Or if Waring were to agree to the suggestion, Donovan would have pulled Waring down to his own level.
Waring slowly rolled a cigarette. “Make out my check,” he said, turning to Quigley.
Donovan sighed. Waring was going to quit. That was good. It had been easy enough.
Quigley drafted a check and handed it to Donovan to sign. As the paymaster began to gather up the money on the table, Waring pocketed the check and rose, watching Quigley’s nervous hands.
As Quigley tied the sack and picked it up, Waring reached out his arm. “Give it to me,” he said quietly. Quigley laughed. Waring’s eyes were unreadable.
The smile faded from Quigley’s face. Without knowing just why he did it, he relinquished the sack.
Waring turned to Donovan. “I’ll take care of this, Bill. As I told you before, you can’t bluff worth a damn.”
Waring strode to the door. At Quigley’s choked exclamation of protest, the gunman whirled round. Donovan stood by the desk, a gun weaving in his hand.
“You ought to know better than to pull a gun on me,” said Waring. “Never throw down on a man unless you mean business, Bill.”
The door clicked shut.
Donovan stood gazing stupidly at Quigley. “By cripes!” he flamed suddenly. “I’ll put Jim Waring where he belongs. He can’t run a whizzer like that on me!”
“I’d go slow,” said Quigley. “You don’t know what kind of a game Waring will play.”
Donovan grabbed the telephone and called up the Sonora police.
_The Silver Crucifix_
When in Sonora, Waring frequented the Plaza Hotel. He had arranged with the management that his room should always be ready for him, day or night. The location was advantageous. Nearly all the Americans visiting Sonora and many resident Americans stopped at the Plaza. Waring frequently picked up valuable bits of news as he lounged in the lobby. Quietly garbed when in town, he passed for a well-to-do rancher or mining man. His manner invited no confidences. He was left much to himself. Men who knew him deemed him unaccountable in that he never drank with them and seldom spoke unless spoken to. The employees of the hotel had grown accustomed to his comings and goings, though they seldom knew where he went or definitely when he would return. His mildness of manner was a source of comment among those who knew him for what he was. And his very mildness of manner was one of his greatest assets in gaining information. Essentially a man of action, silent as to his plans and surmises, yet he could talk well when occasion demanded.
It was rumored that he was in the employ of the American Government; that he had been disappointed in a love affair; that he had a wife and son living somewhere in the States; that for very good reasons he could not return to the States; that he was a dangerous man, well paid by the Mexican Government to handle political matters that would not bear public inspection. These rumors came to him from time to time, and because he paid no attention to them they were accepted as facts.
About an hour after he had left Donovan’s office, Waring entered the Plaza Hotel, nodded to the clerk, and passed on down the hallway. He knocked at a door, and was answered by the appearance of a stout, smooth-shaven man in shirt-sleeves. They chatted for a minute or two. Waring stepped into the room. Presently he reappeared, smiling.
After dinner he strolled out and down the street. At a corner he edged through the crowd, and was striding on when some one touched his arm. He turned to confront the Mexican youth, Ramon. Waring gestured to Ramon to follow, and they passed on down the street until near the edge of the town. In the shadow of an adobe, Waring stopped.
Ramon glanced up and down the street. “The police–they have asked me where is my Uncle Jose. I have told them that I do not know. The police they asked me that.”
“But it is not that why I come. They told me to go to my home. It was when I was in the prison that the policia talked in the telephone. He spoke your name and the name of Senor Bill Donovan of the Ortez Mine. I heard only your name and his, but I was afraid. You will not tell them that I was with my Uncle Jose?”
“No. And thanks, Ramon. I think I know what they were talking about. Go back home, pronto. If you were to be seen with me–“
“The senor is gracious. He has given me my life. I have nothing to give–but this.” And Ramon drew the little silver crucifix from his shirt and pressed it in Waring’s hand.
“Oh, here, muchacho–“
But Ramon was already hastening down a side street. Waring smiled and shook his head. For a moment he stood looking at the little crucifix shining on the palm of his hand. He slipped it into his pocket and strode back up the street. For an hour or more he walked about, listening casually to this or that bit of conversation. Occasionally he heard Mexicans discussing the Ortez robbery. Donovan’s name, Waring’s own name, Vaca’s, and even Ramon’s were mentioned. It seemed strange to him that news should breed so fast. Few knew that he had returned. Possibly Donovan had spread the report that the bandits had made their escape with the money. That would mean that Waring had been outwitted. And Donovan would like nothing better than to injure Waring’s reputation.
Finding himself opposite the hotel, Waring glanced about and strode in. As he entered the hallway leading to his room three men rose from the leather chairs near the lobby window and followed him. Waring’s door closed. He undressed and went to bed. He had been asleep but a few minutes when some one rapped on the door. He asked who it was. He was told to open in the name of the city of Sonora. He rose and dressed quickly.
When he opened the door two Sonora policemen told him to put up his hands. Donovan stood back of them, chewing a cigar. One of the policemen took Waring’s gun. The other searched the room. Evidently he did not find what he sought.
“When you get through,” said Waring, eyeing Donovan grimly, “you might tell me what you’re after.”
“I’m after that thousand,” said Donovan.
“Oh! Well, why didn’t you say so? Just call in Stanley, of the bank. His room is opposite.”
Donovan hesitated. “Stanley’s got nothing to do with this.”
“Hasn’t he?” queried Waring. “Call him in and see.”
One of the police knocked at Stanley’s door.
The bank cashier appeared, rubbing his eyes. “Hello, Bill! Hello, Jim! What’s the fuss?”
“Stanley, did I deposit a thousand dollars in gold to the credit of the Ortez Mine this afternoon?”
“Just show Donovan here the receipt I asked you to keep for me.”
“All right. I’ll get it.”
Donovan glanced at the receipt. “Pretty smooth,” he muttered.
Waring smiled. His silence enraged Donovan, who motioned to the police to leave the room.
Waring interrupted. “My gun?” he queried mildly.
One of the police handed the gun to Waring.
Their eyes met. “Why, hello, Pedro!” And Waring’s voice expressed innocent surprise. “When did you enroll as a policeman?”
Donovan was about to interrupt when the policeman spoke: “That is my business.”
“Which means Bill here has had you sworn in to-day. Knew you would like to get a crack at me, eh? You ought to know better, Salazar.”
“Come on!” called Donovan.
The Mexicans followed him down the hallway.
Waring thanked Stanley. “It was a frame-up to get me, Frank,” he concluded. “Pedro Salazar would like the chance, and as a policeman he could work it. You know that old game–resisting arrest.”
“Doesn’t seem to worry you,” said Stanley.
“No. I’m leaving town. I’m through with this game.”
“Getting too hot?”
“No. I’m getting cold feet,” said Waring, laughing. “And say, Stanley, I may need a little money to-morrow.”
“Any time, Jim.”
Waring nodded. Back in his room he sat for a while on the edge of the bed, gazing at the curtained window. Life had gone stale. He was sick of hunting men and of being hunted. Pedro Salazar was now a member of the Sonora police through Donovan’s efforts. Eventually Salazar would find an excuse to shoot Waring. And the gunman had made up his mind to do no more killing. For that reason he had spared Vaca and had befriended Ramon. He decided to leave Sonora.
Presently he rose and dressed in his desert clothes. As he went through his pockets he came upon the little silver crucifix and transferred it, with some loose change, to his riding-breeches. He turned out the light, locked the room from the outside, and strode out of the hotel.
At the livery-stable, he asked for his horse. The man in charge told him that Dex had been taken by the police. That the Senor Bill Donovan and Pedro Salazar had come and shown him a paper,–he could not read,–but he knew the big seal. It was Pedro Salazar who had ridden the horse.
The streets were still lighted, although the crowd was thinning. Waring turned a corner and drifted through the shadows toward the edge of town. As he passed open doorways he was greeted in Mexican, and returned each greeting pleasantly. The adobe at the end of the side street he was on was dark.
Waring paused. Pedro Salazar’s house was the only unlighted house in the district. The circumstance hinted of an ambushment. Waring crossed to the deeper shadows and whistled. The call was peculiarly low and cajoling. He was answered by a muffled nickering. His horse Dex was evidently corralled at the back of the adobe.
Pedro Salazar knew that Waring would come for the horse sooner or later, so he waited, crouching behind the adobe wall of the enclosure.
Waring knocked loudly on Salazar’s door and called his name. Then he turned and ran to the corner, dodged round it, and crept along the breast-high adobe wall. He whistled again. A rope snapped, and there came the sound of quick trampling. A rush and the great, tawny shape of Dexter reared in the moonlight and swept over the wall. With head up, the horse snorted a challenge. Waring called softly. The horse wheeled toward him. Waring caught the broken neck-rope and swung up. A flash cut the darkness behind him. Instinctively he turned and threw two shots. A figure crumpled to a dim blur in the corral.
Waring raced down the alley and out into the street. At the livery-stable he asked for his saddle and bridle. The Mexican, chattering, brought them. Waring tugged the cinchas tight and mounted. Far down the street some one called.
Waring rode to the hotel, dismounted, and strode in casually, pausing at Stanley’s door. The cashier answered his knock.
“I’m off,” said Waring. “And I’ll need some money.”
“All right, Jim. What’s up? How much?”
“A couple of hundred. Charge it back to my account. Got it?”
“No. I’ll get it at the desk.”
“All right. Settle my bill for me to-morrow. Don’t stop to dress. Rustle!”
A belated lounger glanced up in surprise as Waring, booted and spurred, entered the lobby with a man in pajamas. They talked with the clerk a moment, shook hands, and Waring strode to the doorway.
“Any word for the Ortez people?” queried Stanley as Waring mounted.
“I left a little notice for Donovan–at Pedro Salazar’s house,” said Waring. “Donovan will understand.” And Waring was gone.
The lounger accosted Stanley. “What’s the row, Stanley?”
“I don’t know. Jim Waring is in a hurry–first time since I’ve known him. Figure it out yourself.”
Back in Pedro Salazar’s corral a man lay huddled in a dim corner, his sightless eyes open to the soft radiance of the Sonora moon. A group of Mexicans stood about, jabbering. Among them was Ramon Ortego. Ramon listened and said nothing. Pedro Salazar was dead. No one knew who had killed him. And only that day he had become one of the police! It would go hard with the man who did this thing. There were many surmises. Pedro’s brother had been killed by the gringo Waring down in the desert. As for Pedro, his name had been none too good. They shrugged their shoulders and crossed themselves.
Ramon slipped from the group and climbed the adobe wall. As he straightened up on the other side, he saw something gleaming in the moonlight. He stooped and picked up a little silver crucifix.
_The Tang of Life_
Waring rode until dawn, when he picketed Dex in a clump of chaparral and lay down to rest. He had purposely passed the water-hole, a half-mile south, after having watered the horse and refilled his canteen.
There was a distinction, even in Sonora, between Pedro Salazar, the citizen, and Pedro Salazar, of the Sonora police. The rurales might get busy. Nogales and the Arizona line were still a long ride ahead.
Slowly the desert sun drew overhead and swept the scant shadows from the brush-walled enclosure. Waring slept. Finally the big buckskin became restless, circling his picket and lifting his head to peer over the brush. Long before Waring could have been aware of it, had he been awake, the horse saw a moving something on the southern horizon. Trained to the game by years of association with his master, Dex walked to where Waring lay and nosed his arm. The gunman rolled to his side and peered through the chaparral.
Far in the south a moving dot wavered in the sun. Waring swept the southern arc with his glasses. The moving dot was a Mexican, a horseman riding alone. He rode fast. Waring could see the rise and fall of a quirt. “Some one killing a horse to get somewhere,” he muttered, and he saddled Dex and waited. The tiny figure drew nearer. Dex grew restless. Waring quieted him with a word.
To the west of the chaparral lay the trail, paralleled at a distance of a half-mile by the railroad. The glasses discovered the lone horseman to be Ramon, of Sonora. The boy swayed in the saddle as the horse lunged on. Waring knew that something of grave import had sent the boy out into the noon desert. He was at first inclined to let him pass and then ride east toward the Sierra Madre. If the rurales were following, they would trail Dex to the water-hole. And if Ramon rode on north, some of them would trail the Mexican. This would split up the band–decrease the odds by perhaps one half.
But the idea faded from Waring’s mind as he saw the boy fling past desperately. Waring swung to the saddle and rode out. Ramon’s horse plunged to a stop, and stood trembling. The boy all but fell as he dismounted. Stumbling toward Waring, he held out both hands.
“Senor, the rurales!” he gasped.
“How far behind?”
“The railroad! They are ahead! They have shipped their horses to Magdalena, to Nogales!”
“How do you know that?”
“Pedro Salazar is dead. You were gone. They say it was you.”
“So they shipped their horses ahead to cut me off, eh? You’re a good boy, Ramon, but I don’t know what in hell to do with you. Your cayuse is played out. You made a good ride.”
“Si, senor. I have not stopped once.”
“You look it. You can’t go back now. They would shoot you.”
“I will ride with the senor.”
Waring shook his head.
Ramon’s eyes grew desperate. “Senor,” he pleaded, “take me with you! I cannot go back. I will be your man–follow you, even into the Great Beyond. You will not lose the way.”
And as Ramon spoke he touched the little crucifix on his breast.
“Where did you find _that?_” asked Waring.
“In the Placeta Burro; near the house of Pedro Salazar.”
Waring nodded. “Has your horse had water?”
“No, senor. I did not stop.”
“Take him back to the water-hole. Or, here! Crawl in there and rest up. You are all in. I’ll take care of the cayuse.”
When Waring returned to the chaparral, Ramon was asleep, flat on his back, his arms outspread and his mouth open. Waring touched him with his boot. Ramon muttered. Waring stooped and pulled him up.
Within the hour five rurales disembarked from a box-car and crossed to the water-hole, where one of them dismounted and searched for tracks. Alert for the appearance of the gringo, they rode slowly toward the chaparral. The enclosure was empty. After riding a wide circle round the brush, they turned and followed the tracks toward the eastern hills, rein-chains jingling and their silver-trimmed buckskin jackets shimmering in the sun.
* * * * *
“I will ride back,” said Ramon. “My horse is too weak to follow. The senor rides slowly that I may keep up with him.”
Waring turned in the saddle. Ahead lay the shadowy foothills of the mother range, vague masses in the starlight. Some thirty miles behind was the railroad and the trail north. There was no chance of picking up a fresh horse. The country was uninhabited. Alone, the gunman would have ridden swiftly to the hill country, where his trail would have been lost in the rocky ground of the ranges and where he would have had the advantage of an unobstructed outlook from the high trails.
Ramon had said the rurales had entrained; were ahead of him to intercept him. But Waring, wise in his craft, knew that the man-hunters would search for tracks at every water-hole on the long northern trail. And if they found his tracks they would follow him to the hills. They were as keen on the trail as Yaquis and as relentless as wolves. Their horses, raw-hide tough, could stand a forced ride that would kill an ordinary horse. And Ramon’s wiry little cayuse, though willing to go on until he dropped, could not last much longer.
But to leave Ramon to the rurales was not in Waring’s mind. “We’ll keep on, amigo,” he said, “and in a few hours we’ll know whether it’s to be a ride or a fight.”
“I shall pray,” whispered Ramon.
“For a fresh horse, then.”
“No, senor. That would be of no use. I shall pray that you may escape. As for me–“
“We’ll hit the glory trail together, muchacho. If you get bumped off, it’s your own funeral. You should have stayed in Sonora.”
Ramon sighed. The senor was a strange man. Even now he hummed a song in the starlight. Was he, then, so unafraid of death that he could sing in the very shadow of its wings?
“You’ve got a hunch that the rurales are on our trail,” said Waring, as they rode on.
“It is so, senor.”
“How do you know?”
“I cannot say. But it is so. They have left the railroad and are following us.”
Waring smiled in the dark. “Dex, here, has been trying to tell me that for an hour.”
“And still the senor does not hasten!”
“I am giving your cayuse a chance to make the grade. We’ll ride an hour longer.”
Ramon bowed his head. The horses plodded on, working up the first gentle slope of the foothills. The brush loomed heavier. A hill star faded on the edge of the higher range. Ramon’s lips moved and he crossed himself.
Waring hummed a song. He was not unhappy. The tang of life was his again. Again he followed a trail down which the light feet of Romance ran swiftly. The past, with its red flare of life, its keen memories and dulled regrets, was swept away by the promise of dawn and the unknown. “A clean break and a hard fight,” he murmured, as he reined up to rest his horse. Turning, he could distinguish Ramon, who fingered the crucifix at his throat. Waring’s face grew grim. He felt suddenly accountable for the boy’s life.
The half-moon glowed against the edge of the world. About to ride on again, Waring saw a tiny group of horsemen silhouetted against the half-disk of burning silver. He spoke to his horse. Slowly they climbed the ridge, dropped down the eastern slope, and climbed again.
In a shallow valley, Waring reined up, unsaddled Dex, and turned him loose. Ramon questioned this. “Turn your horse loose,” said Waring. “They’ll keep together and find water.”
Ramon shook his head, but did as he was told. Wearily he followed Waring as he climbed back to a rocky depression on the crest. Without a word Waring stretched behind a rock and was soon asleep. Ramon wondered at the other’s indifference to danger, but fatigue finally overcame him and he slept.
Just before dawn Ramon awakened and touched
Waring. “They are coming!” he whispered.
Waring shook his head. “You hear our horses. The rurales won’t ride into this pocket before daylight. Stay right here till I come back.”
He rose and worked cautiously down the eastern slope, searching for Dex in the valley. In the gray gloom he saw the outline of his horse grazing alone. He stepped down to him. The big horse raised its head. Waring spoke. Reassured, Dex plodded to his master, who turned and tracked back to the pocket in the rocks. “I think your cayuse has drifted south,” he told Ramon.
The young Mexican showed no surprise. He seemed resigned to the situation. “I knew when the senor said to turn my horse loose that he would seek the horses of his kind. He has gone back to the horses of those who follow us.”
“You said it” said Waring. “And that’s going to bother them. It tells me that the rurales are not far behind. They’ll figure that I put you out of business to get rid of you. They’ll look for a dead Mexican, and a live gringo riding north, alone. But they’re too wise to ride up here. They’ll trail up afoot and out of sight. That’s your one chance.”
“My chance, senor?”
“Yes. Here’s some grub. You’ve got your gun. Drift down the slope, get back of the next ridge, and strike south. Locate their horses and wait till they leave them to come up here. Get a horse. Pick a good one. I’ll keep them busy till you get back.”
Ramon rose and climbed to the edge of the pocket. “I go,” he said sadly. “And I shall never see the senor again.”
“Don’t bet all you’ve got on that,” said Waring.
When Ramon had disappeared, Waring led Dex back from the pocket, and, saddling him, left him concealed in the brush. Then the gunman crept back to the rim and lay waiting, a handful of rifle shells loose on a flat rock in front of him. He munched some dried meat and drank from the canteen.
The red dawn faded quickly to a keen white light. Heat waves ran over the rocks and danced down the hillside. Waring lighted a match and blackened the front sight of his carbine. The sun rolled up and struck at him, burning into the pocket of rock where he lay motionless gazing down the slope. Sweat beaded his forehead and trickled down his nose. Scattered boulders seemed to move gently. He closed his eyes for an instant. When he opened them he thought he saw a movement in the brush below. The heat burned into his back, and he shrugged his shoulders. A tiny bird flitted past and perched on the dry, dead stalk of a yucca. Again Waring thought he saw a movement in the brush.
Then, as if by magic, the figure of a rural stood clear and straight against the distant background of brownish-green. Waring smiled. He knew that if he were to fire, the rurales would rush him. They suspected some kind of a trap. Waring’s one chance was to wait until they had given up every ruse to draw his fire. They were not certain of his whereabouts, but were suspicious of that natural fortress of rock. There was not a rural in Old Mexico who did not know him either personally or by reputation. The fact that one of them had offered himself as a possible target proved that they knew they had to deal with a man as crafty as themselves.
The standing figure, shimmering in the glare, drew back and disappeared.
Waring eased his tense muscles. “Now they’ll go back for their horses,” he said to himself. “They’ll ride up to the next ridge, where they can look down on this pocket, but I won’t be here.”
Waring planned every move with that care and instinct which marks a good chess-player. And because he had to count upon possibilities far ahead he drew Ramon’s saddle to him and cut the stirrup-leathers, cinchas, and latigos. If Ramon got one of their horses, his own jaded animal would be left. Eventually the rurales would find the saddle and Ramon’s horse. And every rural out of the riding would be a factor in their escape.
The sun blazed down until the pocket of rock was a pit of stagnant heat. The silence seemed like an ocean rolling in soundless waves across the hills; a silence that became disturbed by a faint sound as of one approaching cautiously. Waring thought Ramon had shown cleverness in working up to him so quietly. He raised on his elbow and turned his head. On the eastern edge of the pocket stood a rural, and the rural smiled.
Waring, who had known the man in Sonora, called him by name. The other’s smile faded, and his eyes narrowed. Waring thrust up his hands and jokingly offered to toss up a coin to decide the issue. He knew his man; knew that at the first false move the rural would kill him. He rose and turned sideways that the other might take his gun. “You win the throw,” he said. The Mexican jerked Waring’s gun from the holster and cocked it. Then he whistled.
From below came the faint clatter of hoofs. The rural seemed puzzled that his call should have been answered so promptly. He knew that his companions had gone for their horses, picketed some distance from the pocket. He had volunteered to surprise the gunman single-handed.
Waring, gazing beyond the rural, saw the head of a horse top the rise. In the saddle sat Ramon, hatless, his black hair flung back from his forehead, a gun in his hand. Waring drew a deep breath. Would Ramon bungle it by calling out, or would he have nerve enough to make an end of it on the instant?
Although Waring was unarmed, the rural dared not turn. The gringo had been known to slip out of as tight a place despite the threat of a gun almost against his chest. With a despondent shrug, Waring lowered his arms.
“You win the throw,” he said hopelessly.
Still the Mexican dared not take his eyes from Waring. He would wait until his companions appeared.
A few yards behind the rural, Ramon reined up. Slowly he lowered the muzzle of his gun. The rural called the name of one of his fellows. The answer came in a blunt crash, which rippled its harsh echoes across the sounding hills. The rural flung up his arms and pitched forward, rolling to Waring’s feet. The gunman leaped up, and, snatching his carbine from the rock, swung round and took his six-gun from the rural’s limp fingers. Plunging to the brush beyond the pocket, he swung to the saddle and shot down the slope. Behind him he could hear Ramon’s horse scattering the loose rock of the hillside. A bullet struck ahead of him and whined across the silence. A shrill call told him that the pursuers had discovered the body of their fellow.
Dex, with ears laid back, took the ragged grade in great, uneven leaps that shortened to a regular stride as they gained the level of the valley. Glancing back, Waring saw Ramon but a few yards behind. He signaled to him to ride closer. Together they swung down the valley, dodging the low brush–and leaping rocks at top speed.
Finally Waring reined in. “We’ll make for that ridge,”–and he indicated the range west. Under cover of the brush they angled across the valley and began the ascent of the range which hid the western desert.
Halfway up, Waring dismounted. “Lead my horse on up,” he told Ramon. “I’ll argue it out with ’em here.”
“Senor, I have killed a man!” gasped Ramon.
Waring flung the reins to his companion. “All right! This isn’t a fiesta, hombre; this is business.”
Ramon turned and put his horse up the slope, Dex following. Waring curled behind a rock and swept the valley with his glass. The heads of several rurales were visible in the brush. They had halted and were looking for tracks. Finally one of them raised his arm and pointed toward the hill. They had caught sight of Ramon on the slope above. Presently three riders appeared at the foot of the grade. It was a long shot from where Waring lay. He centered on the leading rural, allowed for a chance of overshooting, and pressed the trigger. The carbine snarled. An echo ripped the shimmering heat. A horse reared and plunged up the valley, the saddle empty.
Waring rose, and plodded up the slope.
“Three would have trailed us. Two will ride back to the railroad and report. I wonder how many of them are bushed along the trail between here and Nogales?”
In the American custom-house at Nogales sat a lean, lank man gazing out of a window facing the south. His chair was tilted back, and his large feet were crossed on the desk in front of him. He was in his shirt-sleeves, and he puffed indolently at a cigar and blew smoke-rings toward the ceiling. Incidentally his name was known throughout the country and beyond its southern borders. But if this distinction affected him in any way it was not evident. He seemed submerged in a lassitude which he neither invited nor struggled against.
A group of riders appeared down the road. The lean man brushed a cloud of smoke away and gazed at them with indifference. They drew nearer. He saw that they were Mexicans–rurales. Without turning his head, he called to an invisible somebody in the next room.
“Jack, drift over to the cantina and get a drink.”
A chair clumped to the floor, and a stocky, dark-faced man appeared, rubbing his eyes. “On who?” he queried, grinning.
“On old man Diaz,” replied the lean man.
“All right, Pat. But mebby his credit ain’t good on our side of the line.”
The lean man said nothing. He continued to gaze out of the window. The white road ran south and south into the very haze of the beyond. His assistant picked up a hat and strolled out. A few doors down the street stood several excellent saddle animals tied to the hitching-rail in front of the cantina. He didn’t need to be told that they were the picked horses of the rurales, and that for some strange reason his superior had sent him to find out just why these same rurales were in town.
He entered the cantina and called for a drink. The lithe, dark riders of the south, grouped round a table in one corner of the room, glanced up, answered his general nod of salutation indifferently, and turned to talk among themselves. Catering to authority, the Mexican proprietor proffered a second drink to the Americano. The assistant collector toyed with his glass, and began a lazy conversation about the weather. The proprietor, his fat, oily face in his hands and his elbows on the bar, grunted monosyllables, occasionally nodding as the Americano forced his acknowledgment of a highly obvious platitude.
And the assistant collector, listening for a chance word that would explain the presence of armed Mexico on American soil, knew that the proprietor was also listening for that same word that might explain their unprecedented visit. Presently the assistant collector of customs began a tirade against Nogales, its climate, institutions, and citizens collectively and singly. The proprietor awoke to argument. Their talk grew loud. The assistant collector thumped the bar with his fist, and ceased talking suddenly. A subdued buzz came from the corner where the rurales sat, and he caught the name “Waring.”
“And the whole town ain’t worth the matches to burn it up,” he continued. “If it wasn’t for Pat, I’d quit right now.” And he emptied his glass and strode from the room.
Back in the office, he flung his hat on the table and rumpled his hair. “Those coyotes,” he said casually, “are after some one called Waring. Pablo’s whiskey is rotten.”
The collector’s long legs unfolded, and he sat up, yawning. “Jim Waring isn’t in town,” he said as though to himself.
“Pat, you give me a pain,” said the assistant, grinning.
“Got one myself,” said the collector unsmilingly. “Cucumbers.”
“You’re the sweetest liar for a thousand miles either side of the line. There isn’t even the picture of a cucumber in this sun-blasted town.”
“Isn’t, eh? Look here!” And the lank man pulled open a drawer in the desk. The collector fumbled among some papers and drew out a bulky seed catalogue, illustrated in glowing tints.
“Oh, I’ll buy,” laughed the assistant. “I reckon if I asked for a picture of this man Waring that’s wanted by those nickel-plated coyotes, you’d fish it up and never sweat a hair.”
“I could,” said the collector, closing the drawer.
“Here, smoke one of mine for a change. About that picture. I met Jim Waring in Las Cruces. He was a kid then, but a comer. Had kind of light, curly hair. His face was as smooth as a girl’s. He wasn’t what you’d call a dude, but his clothes always looked good on him. Wimmin kind of liked him, but he never paid much attention to them. He worked for me as deputy a spell, and I never hired a better man. But he wouldn’t stay with one job long. When Las Cruces got quiet he pulled his freight. Next I heard of him he was married and living in Sonora. It didn’t take Diaz long to find out that he could use him. Waring was a wizard with a gun–and he had the nerve back of it. But Waring quit Diaz, for Jim wasn’t that kind of a killer. I guess he found plenty of work down there. He never was one to lay around living on his reputation and waiting for nothing to happen. He kept his reputation sprouting new shoots right along–and that ain’t all joke, neither.”
“Speakin’ in general, could he beat you to it with a gun, Pat?”
“Speaking in general–I reckon he could.”
“Them rurales are kind of careless–ridin’ over the line and not stoppin’ by to make a little explanation.”
The lank man nodded. “There’s a time coming when they’ll do more than that. That old man down south is losing his grip. I don’t say this for general information. And if Jim Waring happens to ride into town, just tell him who you are and pinch him for smuggling; unless I see him first.”
“What did I ever do to you?”
Pat laughed silently. “Oh, he ain’t a fool. It’s only a fool that’ll throw away a chance to play safe.”
“You got me interested in that Waring hombre. I’ll sure nail him like you said; but if he goes for his gun I don’t want you plantin’ no cucumber seed on my restin’-place. Guess I’ll finish those reports.”
The lank man yawned, and, rising, strode to the window. The assistant sauntered to the inner office and drew up to his desk. “Pablo’s whiskey is rotten!” he called over his shoulder. The lank collector smiled.
The talk about Waring and Las Cruces had stirred slumbering memories; memories of night rides in New Mexico, of the cattle war, of blazing noons on the high mesas and black nights in huddled adobe towns; Las Cruces, Albuquerque, Caliente, Santa Fe–and weary ponies at the hitching-rails.
Once, on an afternoon like this, he had ridden into town with a prisoner beside him, a youth whose lightning-swift hand had snuffed out a score of lives to avenge the killing of a friend. The collector recalled that on that day he had ridden his favorite horse, a deep-chested buckskin, slender legged, and swift, with a strain of thoroughbred.
Beyond the little square of window through which he gazed lay the same kind of a road–dusty, sun-white, edged with low brush. And down the road, pace for pace with his thoughts, strode a buckskin horse, ridden by a man road-weary, gray with dust. Beside him rode a youth, his head bowed and his hands clasped on the saddle-horn as though manacled.
The assistant shoved back his chair and came to the window.
“There’s the rest of your picture,” said the collector.
As the assistant gazed at the riders, the collector stepped to his desk and buckled on a gun.
“Want to meet Waring?” he queried.
“I’m on for the next dance, Pat.”
The collector stepped out. Waring reined up. A stray breeze fluttered the flag above the custom-house. Waring gravely lifted his sombrero.
“You’re under arrest,” said the collector.
Waring gestured toward Ramon.
“You, too,” nodded Pat. “Get the kid and his horse out of sight,” he told the assistant.
Ramon, too weary to expostulate, followed the assistant to a corral back of the building.
The collector turned to Waring. “And now, Jim, what’s the row?”
“Down the street–and coming,” said Waring, as the rurales boiled from the cantina.
“We’ll meet ’em halfway,” said the collector.
And midway between the custom-house and the cantina the two cool-eyed, deliberate men of the North faced the hot-blooded Southern haste that demanded Waring as prisoner. The collector, addressing the leader of the rurales, suggested that they talk it over in the cantina. “And don’t forget you’re on the wrong side of the line,” he added.
The Captain of rurales and one of his men dismounted and followed the Americans into the cantina. The leader of the rurales immediately exhibited a warrant for the arrest of Waring, signed by a high official and sealed with the great seal of Mexico. The collector returned the warrant to the captain.
“That’s all right, amigo, but this man is already under arrest.”
“By whose authority?”
“Mine–representing the United States.”
“The warrant of the Presidente antedates your action,” said the captain.
“Correct, Senor Capitan. But my action, being just about two jumps ahead of your warrant, wins the race, I reckon.”
“It is a trick!”
“Si! You must have guessed it.”
“I shall report to my Government. And I also demand that you surrender to me one Ramon Ortego, of Sonora, who aided this man to escape, and who is reported to have killed one of my men and stolen one of my horses.”
“He ought to make a darned good rural, if that’s so,” said the collector. “But he is under arrest for smuggling. He rode a horse across the line without declaring valuation.”
“Juan,” said the captain, “seize the horse of the Americano.”
“Juan,” echoed Waring softly, “I have heard that Pedro Salazar seized the horse of an Americano–in Sonora.”
The rural stopped short and turned as though awaiting further instructions from his chief. The collector of customs rose and sauntered to the doorway. Leaning against the lintel, he lighted a cigar and smoked, gazing at Waring’s horse with an appreciative eye. The captain of rurales, seated opposite Waring, rolled a cigarette carefully; too carefully, thought Waring, for a Mexican who had been daring enough to ride across the line with armed men. Outside in the fading sunlight, the horses of the rurales stamped and fretted. The cantina was strangely silent. In the doorway stood the collector, smoking and toying with his watch-charm.
Presently the assistant collector appeared, glanced in, and grinned. “The kid is asleep–in the office,” he whispered to the collector.
Waring knew that the flicker of an eyelid, an intonation, a gesture, might precipitate trouble. He also knew that diplomacy was out of the question. He glanced round the room, pushed back his chair, and, rising, stepped to the bar. With his back against it, he faced the captain.
“Miguel,” he said quietly, “you’re too far over the line. Go home!”
The captain rose. “Your Government shall hear of this!”
“Yes. Wire ’em to-night. And where do you get off? You’ll get turned back to the ranks.”
“Si, Senor Capitan, and because–_you didn’t get your man_.”
The collector of customs stood with his cigar carefully poised in his left hand. The assistant pushed back his hat and rumpled his black hair.
All official significance set aside, Waring and the captain of rurales faced each other with the blunt challenge between them: “You didn’t get your man!”
The captain glanced at the two quiet figures in the doorway. Beyond them were his own men, but between him and his command were two of the fastest guns in the Southwest. He was on alien ground. This gringo had insulted him.
Waring waited for the word that burned in the other’s eyes.
The collector of customs drew a big silver watch from his waistband. “It’s about time–to go feed the horses,” he said.
With the sound of his voice the tension relaxed. Waring eyed the captain as though waiting for him to depart. “You’ll find that horse in the corral–back of the customs office,” he said.
The Mexican swung round and strode out, followed by his man.
The rurales mounted and rode down the street. The three Americans followed a few paces behind. Opposite the office, they paused.
“Go along with ’em and see that they get the right horse,” said the collector.
The assistant hesitated.
The collector laughed. “Shake hands with Jim Waring, Jack.”
When the assistant had gone, the collector turned to Waring. “That’s Jack every time. Stubborn as a tight boot, but good leather every time. Know why he wanted to shake hands? Well, that’s his way of tellin’ you he thinks you’re some smooth for not pullin’ a fight when it looked like nothing else was on the bill.”
Waring smiled. “I’ve met you before, haven’t I?”
Pat pretended to ignore the question. “Say, stranger,” he began with slow emphasis, “you’re makin’ mighty free and familiar for a prisoner arrested for smuggling. Mebby you’re all right personal, but officially I got a case against you. What do you know about raising cucumbers? I got a catalogue in the office, and me and Jack has been aiming to raise cucumbers from it for three months. I like ’em. Jack says you can’t do it down here without water every day. Now–“
“Where have you planted them, Pat?”
“Oh, hell! They ain’t _planted_ yet. We’re just figuring. Now, up Las Cruces way–“
“Let’s go back to the cantina and talk it out. There goes Mexico leading a horse with an empty saddle. I guess the boy will be all right in the office.”
“Was the kid mixed up in your getaway?”
“Yes. And he’s a good boy.”
“Well, he’s in dam’ bad company. Now, Jack says you got to plant ’em in hills and irrigate. I aim to just drill ’em in and let the A’mighty do the rest. What do you think?”
“I think you’re getting worse as you grow older, Pat. Say, did you ever get track of that roan mare you lost up at Las Cruces?”
“Yes, I got her back.”
“Speaking of horses, I saw a pinto down in Sonora–“
Just then the assistant joined them, and they sauntered to the cantina. Dex, tied at the rail, turned and gazed at them. Waring took the morral of grain from the saddle, and, slipping Dex’s bridle, adjusted it.
The rugged, lean face of the collector beamed. “I wondered if you thought as much of ’em as you used to. I aimed to see if I could make you forget to feed that cayuse.”
“How about those goats in your own corral?” laughed Waring.
“Kind of a complimentary cuss, ain’t he?” queried Pat, turning to his assistant. “And he don’t know a dam’ thing about cucumbers.”
“You old-timers give me a pain,” said the assistant, grinning.
“That’s right! Because you can’t set down to a meal without both your hands and feet agoing and one ear laid back, you call us old because we chew slow. But you’re right. Jim and I are getting kind of gray around the ears.”
“Well, you fellas can fight it out. I came over to say that them rurales got their hoss. But one of ’em let it slip, in Mexican, that they weren’t through yet.”
“So?” said Pat. “Well, you go ahead and feed the stock. We’ll be over to the house poco tiempo.”
Waring and the collector entered the cantina. For a long time they sat in silence, gazing at the peculiar half-lights as the sun drew down. Finally the collector turned to Waring.
“Has the game gone stale, Jim?”
Waring nodded. “I’m through. I am going to settle down. I’ve had my share of trouble.”
“Here, too,” said the collector. “I’ve put by enough to get a little place up north–cattle–and take it easy. That’s why I stuck it out down here. Had any word from your folks recent?”
“Not for ten years.”
“And that boy trailing with you?”
“Oh, he’s just a kid I picked up in Sonora. No, my own boy is straight American, if he’s living now.”
“You might stop by at Stacey, on the Santa Fe,” said the collector casually. “There’s some folks running a hotel up there that you used to know.”
Waring thanked him with a glance. “We don’t need a drink and the sun is down. Where do you eat?”
“We’ll get Jack to rustle some grub. You and the boy can bunk in the office. I’ll take care of your horse.”
“Thanks, Pat. But you spoke of going north. I wouldn’t if I were you. They’ll get you.”
“I had thought of that. But I’m going to take that same chance. I’m plumb sick of the border.”
“If they do–” And Waring rose.
The collector’s hard-lined face softened for an instant. He thrust out his bony hand. “I’ll leave that to you, Jim.”
And that night, because each was a gunman unsurpassed in his grim profession, they laughed and talked about things trivial, leaving the deeper currents undisturbed. And the assistant collector, eating with