As he spoke he let his eyes fall upon the hat in his hand.
Hers followed his, and she started in spite of herself.
"Did—did—were you shot at?" she asked, with dilating eyes.
"Oh, well! He didn't hit me. It's not worth mentioning."
"Not worth mentioning? Who did it, sir? I demand to know who did it?"
He hesitated as he picked his words.
"You see—well—he was behind a rock, and not very close, at that."
"But you knew him. I demand his name. He shall be punished. I myself will see to that."
"I'll do what punishing needs to be done, Miss Valdes. Much obliged to you, just the same."
Her eyes flashed.
"You forget, sir, that they are my people. I gave orders—the very strictest orders. I told them that, no matter what you did or how far you went, you were not to be molested."
"How far I went? You've been served with a legal notice, then? I thought you must have by this time."
"Yes, sir, I have. But neither on that nor any other subject do I desire any conversation with you."
"Of course not, me being a spy and all those other things you mentioned," he said quietly.
"I stopped to tell you only one thing. You must leave this country. Prosecute your suit from a distance. My people are wrought up. You see for yourself now." Her gauntlet indicated the hat.
"They do seem to be enthusiastic about hating me," he agreed pleasantly. "I suppose I'm not what you would call popular here."
She gave a gesture of annoyance.
"Can't you understand that this is no time for flippancy? Can't you make him see it, sir?" she called to Davis.
That gentleman shook his head.
"He'll go his own way, I expect. He always was that bull-headed."
"Firm—I call it," smiled Gordon.
"I ask you to remember that he has had his warning," the girl called to Steve.
"I've had several," acknowledged Dick, his eyes again on the hat. "There won't be anybody to blame but myself."
"You know who shot at you. I saw it in your face. Tell me, and I will see that he is punished," she urged.
Dick shook his head imperturbably.
"No; I reckon that wouldn't do. I'm playing a lone hand. You're on the other side. How can I come and ask you to fight my battles for me? That wouldn't be playing the game. I'll attend to the young man that mistook me for a rabbit."
"Very well. As you like. But you are quite mistaken if you think I asked on your account. He had disobeyed my orders, and he deserved to pay for it. I have no further interest in the matter."
"Certainly. I understand that. What interest could Miss Valdes have in a spy and a cheat?" he drawled negligently.
The young woman flushed, made as if to speak, then turned away abruptly.
She touched her pony with the spur, and as it took the outside of the slanting, narrow trail, its hoof slipped on loose gravel and went over the edge. Dick's arm went out like a streak of lightning and caught the rein.
For an instant the issue hung in doubt whether he could hold the bronco and save her a nasty fall. The taut muscles of his lean arm and body grew rigid with the strain before the animal found its feet and the path.
"Thank you," the young woman said quietly, and at once disengaged the rein from his fingers by a turn of the pony's head.
Yet a moment, and she had disappeared round a bend in the trail. Gordon had observed with satisfaction that there had been no sign of fear in her eyes at the danger she faced, no screaming or wild clutching at his arm for help. Her word of thanks to him had been as cool and low as the rest of her talk.
"She's that game. Ain't she a thoroughbred, Steve?" demanded Dick, with deep delight in his fair foe.
"You bet she is. It's a shame for you to be annoying her this way. Why don't you come to an agreement with her?"
"She ain't ready for that yet. When the time comes I'll dictate the terms of the treaty. Don't you think it's about time for us to be heading back home?"
"Then we'll meet your lady of the ranch quicker, won't we?" chuckled Davis. "Funny you didn't think about going back till after she had passed."
But if Dick had hoped to see her again he was disappointed for that day, at least. They reached Corbett's with never another glimpse of her; nor was there any sign of her horse in front of the post office and general store.
"Must have taken that lower trail that leads back to the ranch," hazarded Gordon.
"I reckon," agreed his friend. "Seems funny, too; her knowing you was on the upper one."
"Guy me all you like. I can stand it," returned Dick cheerfully.
For he had scored once in spite of her. He had saved her from a fall, at a place where, to say the least, it would have been dangerous. She had announced herself indifferent to his existence; but the very fact that she had felt called upon to say so gave denial to the statement. She might hate him, and she probably did; at least, she had him on her mind a good deal. The young man was sure of that. He was shrewdly of opinion that his chances were better if she hated him than if she never thought of him at all.
TAMING AN OUTLAW
"Something doing back of the corral, Mr. Gordon."
Yeager, the horse-wrangler at Corbett's, stopped in front of the porch, and jerked his head, with a twisted grin, in the direction indicated.
Everything about the little stableman was crooked. From the slope of his legs to the set of his bullet head on the narrow shoulders, he was awry. But he had an instinct about horses that was worth more than the beauty of any slim, tanned vaquero of the lot.
Only one horse had he failed to subdue. That was Teddy, a rakish sorrel that had never yet been ridden. Many had tried it, but none had stuck to the saddle to the finish; and some had been carried from the corral to the hospital.
Dick got up and strolled back, with his hands in his pockets.
A dozen vaqueros and loungers sat and stood around the mouth of the corral, from which a slim young Mexican was leading the sorrel.
"So, it's you, Master Pedro," thought the young American. "I didn't expect to see you here."
The lad met his eyes quietly as he passed, giving him a sullen nod of greeting; evidently he hoped he had not been recognized as the previous day's ambusher.
"Is Pedro going to ride the outcast?" Dick asked of Yeager, in surprise.
"He's going to try. The boy's slap-up rider, but he ain't got it in him to break Teddy—no, nor any man in New Mexico ain't."
Dick looked the horse over carefully, as it stood there while the boy tightened the girths—feet wide apart, small head low, and red eyes gleaming wickedly. Deep-chested, with mighty shoulders, barrel-bodied like an Indian pony, Teddy showed power in every line of him. It was easy to guess him for the unbroken outlaw he was.
There was a swift scatter backward of the onlookers as Pedro swung to the saddle. Before his right foot was in the stirrup, the bronco bucked.
The young Mexican, light and graceful, settled to the saddle with a delighted laugh, and drove the spurs home. The animal humped like a camel, head and tail down, went into the air and back to earth, with four feet set like pile-drivers. It was a shock to drive a man's spine together like a concertina; but Pedro took it limply, giving to the jar of the impact as the pony came down again and again.
Teddy tasted the quirt along his quarters, and the pain made him frantic. He went screaming straight into the air, hung there a long instant, and fell over backward. The lad was out of the saddle in time and no more, and back in his seat before the outlaw had scrambled to his feet.
The spur starred him to renewed life. Like a flash of lightning, the brute's head swung round and snapped at the boy's leg. Pedro wrenched the head back in time to save himself; and Teddy went to sun-fishing, and presently to fence-rowing.
The dust flew in clouds. It wrapped them in so that the boy saw nothing but the wicked ears in front of him. His throat became a lime-kiln, his eyes stared like those of a man weary from long wakefulness. The hot sun baked his bare neck and head, the while Teddy rocketed into the sky and pounded into the earth.
Neither rider nor mount had mercy. The quirt went back and forth like a piston-rod, and the outlaw, in screaming fury, leaped and tossed like a small boat in a tremendous sea of cross-currents.
"It's sure hell-for-leather. That hawss can tie himself in more knots than any that was ever foaled," commented a tobacco-chewing puncher in a scarlet kerchief.
"Pedro is a straight-up rider, but he ain't got it in him to master Teddy—no; nor no man ain't," contributed Yeager again proudly. "Hawsses is like men. Some of 'em can't be broke; you can only kill them. Teddy's one of them kind."
Dick differed, but did not say so.
"Look at him now. There he goes weaving. That hawss is a devil, I tell you. He's got every hawss-trick there is, and all of 'em worked up to a combination of his own. Look out there, Ped."
The warning came too late. Teddy had jammed into the corral fence, and ground his rider's knee till the torture of the pain had distracted his attention. Once more then swept round the ugly stub nose, and the yellow teeth fastened in the leather chaps with a vicious snap that did not entirely miss the flesh of the leg.
The boy, with a cry of pain and terror, slipped to the ground, his nerve completely shaken. The sorrel lashed out with his hind feet, and missed his head by a hairbreadth. Pedro turned to run, stumbled, and went down.
The outlaw was upon him like a streak, striking with sharp chiseled forefeet at the prostrate man. Along the line of spectators ran a groan, a kind of sobbing murmur of despair. A young Mexican who had just ridden up flung himself from his horse and ran forward, though he knew he was too late.
"Pedro's done for," cried one.
And so he would have been but for the watchfulness and alertness of one man.
Dick had been ready the instant the outlaw had flung against the fence. He had been prepared to see the boy weaken, and had anticipated it in his forward leap. The furious animal had risen to drive home his hoofs, when an arm shot out, caught the bridle, and dragged him sideways. This unexpected intervention dazed the animal; and while he still stood uncertain, Gordon swung to the saddle and dug his heels into the bleeding sides.
As to a signal the bronco rose, and the battle was on again.
But this time the victory was not in doubt to the onlookers after the first half-dozen jumps. For this man rode like a master. He held a close but easy seat, and a firm rein, along which ran the message of an iron will to the sensitive foaming mouth which held the bit tight-clamped.
This brown, lithe man was all bone and sinew and muscle. He rode like a Centaur, as if he were a part of the horse, as easily and gracefully as a chip does the waves. The outlaw was furious with hate, blind with a madness that surged through it; but all its weaving and fence-rowing could not shake the perfect poise of the rider, nor tinge with fear the glad fighting edge that throbbed like a trumpet-call in the blood.
Slowly the certainty of this sifted to the animal. The pitches grew less volcanic, died presently into fitful mechanical rises and falls that foretold the finish. Its spirit broken, with that terrible incubus of a human clothes-pin still clamped to the saddle, Teddy gave up, and for the first time hung his head in token of defeat.
Dick tossed the bridle to Yeager and swung off.
"There aren't any of them so bad, if a fellow will stay with them," he said.
"Where did you learn your riding, partner?" asked the puncher with the scarlet kerchief knotted around his neck.
"I used to ride for an outfit up in Wyoming," returned Dick.
"Well, I'd like to ride for that outfit, if all the boys stick to the saddle like you," returned the kerchiefed one.
Gordon did not explain that he had been returned winner in more than one bucking-bronco contest in the days when he rode the range.
He was already sauntering toward the house.
From a side porch Pedro, awaiting the arrival of a rig to take him back to the ranch, sat with his bruised leg on a chair and watched the approach of the stalwart figure that came as lightly as though it trod on eggs. He had hobbled here and watched the other do easily what had been beyond him.
His heart was bitter with the sense of defeat, none the less because this man whom he had lately tried to kill had just saved his life.
"Como?" asked Dick, stopping in front of him to brush dust from his trousers with a pocket-handkerchief.
Pedro mumbled something. Under his olive skin the color burned. Tears of mortification were in his eyes.
"You saved my life, senor. Take it. It is yours," the boy cried.
"What shall I do with it?"
"I care not. Make an end of it, as on Tuesday I tried to make an end of yours," cried the lad wildly.
Gordon took off his hat and looked at the bullet holes casually.
"You did not miss it very far, Pedro."
"You knew then, senor, that I was the man?" the Mexican asked in surprise.
"Oh, yes; I knew that."
"And you did nothing?"
"Yes; I ducked behind a rock," laughed Gordon.
"But you make no move to arrest me?"
"But, if I should shoot again?"
"I expect to carry a rifle next time I go riding, Pedro."
The Mexican considered this.
"You are a brave man, senor."
The Anglo-Saxon snorted scornfully.
"Because I ain't bluffed out by a kid that needs a horse-whip laid on good and hard? Don't you make any mistake, boy. I'm going to give you the licking of your young life. You were due for it to-day, but it will have to be postponed, I reckon, till you're on your feet again."
Pedro's eyes glittered dangerously.
"Senor Gordon has saved my life. It is his. But no living man lays hands on Pedro Menendez," the boy said, drawing himself haughtily to his full slender height.
"You'll learn better, Pedro, before the week's out. You've got to stand the gaff, just the same as a white boy would. You're in for a good whaling, and there ain't any use getting heroic about it."
"I think not, Senor Gordon." There was a suggestion of repressed emotion in the voice.
Dick turned sharply at the words. A lean, clean-built young fellow stood beside the porch. He stepped up lightly, so that he was behind the chair in which Pedro had been sitting. Seen side by side thus, there could be no mistaking the kinship between the two Mexicans. Both were good looking, both lean and muscular, both had a sort of banked volcanic passion in their black eyes. Dangerous men, these slim swarthy youths, judged Gordon with a sure instinct.
"You think not, Pedro Number 2," retorted the American lightly.
"My name is Pablo, Senor—Pablo Menendez," corrected the young man with dignity.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Menendez. I was just telling your brother—if Pedro is your brother—that I intend to wear out a buggy whip on him as soon as his leg is well," explained Dick pleasantly.
"No. You have saved his life. It is yours. Take it." The black eyes of the Mexican met steadily the blue-gray ones of the American.
"Much obliged, but I can't use it. As soon as I've tanned his hide I'm through with Master Pedro," returned the miner carelessly.
He was turning away when Pablo stopped him. The musical voice was low and clear. "Senor Gordon understands then. Pedro will pay. He will endure shot for shot if the Senor wishes it. But no man living shall lay a whip upon him."
Gordon shrugged his shoulders. "We shall see, my friend. The first time I meet him after his leg is all right Master Pedro gets the licking he needs."
"You are warned, senor."
Dick nodded and walked away, humming a song lightly.
The black eyes of the Mexicans followed him as long as he was in sight. A passionate hatred burned in those of the elder brother. Those of Pedro were full of a wistful misery. With all his heart he admired this man whom he had yesterday tried to kill, who had to-day saved his life, and in the next breath promised him a thrashing.
He gave him a grudging hero-worship, even while he hated him; for the man trod the world with the splendor of a young god, and yet was an enemy of the young mistress to whom he owed his full devotion. Pedro's mind was made up.
If this Gordon laid a whip on him, he would drive a knife into his heart.
OF DON MANUEL AND MOONLIGHT
Don Manuel sat curled up in one of the deep window-seats of the living room at the Valdes home, and lifted his clear tenor softly in an old Spanish love-song to the accompaniment of the strumming of a guitar.
It is possible that the young Spaniard sang the serenade impersonally, as much to the elderly duenna who slumbered placidly on the other side of the fireplace as to his lovely young hostess. But his eyes told another story. They strayed continuously toward that slim, gracious figure sitting in the fireglow with a piece of embroidery in the long fingers.
He could look at her the more ardently because she was not looking at him. The fringes of her lids were downcast to the dusky cheeks, the better to examine the work upon which she was engaged.
Don Manuel felt the hour propitious. It was impossible for him not to feel that in the past weeks somehow he had lost touch with her. Something had come between them; some new interest that threatened his influence.
But to-night he had again woven the spell of romance around her. As she sat there, a sweet shadowy form touched to indistinctness by the soft dusk, he knew her gallant heart had gone with him in the Castilian battle song he had sung, had remained with him in the transition to the more tender note of love.
He rose, thumbed a chord or two, then set his guitar down softly. For a time he looked out into the valley swimming in a silvery light, and under its spell the longing in him came to words.
"It is a night of nights, my cousin. Is it not that a house is a prison in such an hour? Let us forth."
So forth they fared to the porch, and from the porch to the sentinel rock which rose like a needle from the summit of a neighboring hill. Across the sea of silver they looked to the violet mountains, soft and featureless in the lowered lights of evening, and both of them felt it earth's hour of supreme beauty.
"It is good to live—and to know this," she said at last softly.
"It is good to live and, best of all, to know you," he made answer slowly.
She did not turn from the hills, made no slightest sign that she had heard; but to herself she was saving: "It has come."
While he pleaded his cause passionately, with all the ardor of hot-blooded Spain, the girl heard only with her ears. She was searching her heart for the answer to the question she asked of it:
"Is this the man?"
A month ago she might have found her answer easier; but she felt that in some subtle, intangible way she was not the same girl as the Valencia Valdes she had known then. Something new had come into her life; something that at times exalted her and seemed to make life's currents sweep with more abandon.
She was at a loss to know what it meant; but, though she would not confess it even to herself, she was aware that the American was the stimulating cause. He was her enemy, and she detested him; and, in the same breath with which she would tell herself this, would come that warm beat of exultant blood she had never known till lately.
With all his ardor, Don Manuel never quickened her pulses. She liked him, understood him, appreciated his value. He was certainly very handsome, and, without doubt, a brave, courteous gentleman of her own set with whom she ought to be happy if she loved him. Ah! If she knew what love were.
So, when the torrent of Pesquiera's speech was for the moment dammed, she could only say:
"I don't know, Manuel."
Confidently he explained away her uncertainty:
"A maiden's love is retiring, shy, like the first flowers of the spring. She doubts it, fears it, hides it, my beloved, like——"
He was just swimming into his vocal stride when she cut him short decisively:
"It isn't that way with me, Manuel. I should tell you if I knew. Tell me what love is, my cousin, and I may find an answer."
He was off again in another lover's rhapsody. This time there was a smile almost of amusement in her eyes as she listened.
"If it is like that, I don't think I love you, Manuel. I don't think poetry about you, and I don't dream about you. Life isn't a desert when you are away, though I like having you here. I don't believe I care for you that way, not if love is what the poets and my cousin Manuel say it is."
Her eyes had been fixed absently now and again on an approaching wagon. It passed on the road below them, and she saw, as she looked down, that her vaquero Pedro lay in the bottom of it upon some hay.
"What is the matter? Are you hurt?" she called down.
The lad who was driving looked up, and flashed a row of white teeth in a smile of reassurance to his mistress.
"It is Pedro, dona. He tried to ride that horse Teddy, and it threw him. Before it could kill him, the Americano jumped in and saved his life."
"What American?" she asked quickly: but already she knew by the swift beating of her heart.
"Senor Muir; the devil fly away with him," replied the boy loyally.
Already his mistress was descending toward him with her sure stride, Don Manuel and his suit forgotten in the interest of this new development of the feud. She made the boy go over the tale minutely, asking questions sometimes when she wanted fuller details.
Meanwhile, Manuel Pesquiera waited, fuming. Most certainly this fellow Gordon was very much in the way. Jealousy began to add its sting to the other reasons good for hastening his revenge.
When Valencia turned again to her cousin her eyes were starry.
"He is brave—this man. Is he not?" she cried.
It happened that Don Manuel, too, was a rider in a thousand. He thought that Fate had been unkind to refuse him this chance his enemy had found. But Pesquiera was a gentleman, and his answer came ungrudgingly:
"My cousin, he is a hero—as I told you before."
"But you think him base," she cried quickly.
"I let the facts speak for me," he shrugged.
"Do they condemn him—absolutely? I think not."
She was a creature of impulse, too fine of spirit to be controlled by the caution of speech that convention demands. She would do justice to her foe, no matter how Manuel interpreted it.
What the young man did think was that she was the most adorable and desirable of earth's dwellers, the woman he must win at all hazards.
"He came here a spy, under a false name. Surely you do not forget that, Valencia," he said.
"I do not forget, either, that we flung his explanations in his face; refused him the common justice of a hearing. Had we given him a chance, all might have been well."
"My cousin is generous," Manuel smiled bitterly.
"I would be just."
"Be both, my beloved, to poor Manuel Pesquiera, an unhappy wreck on the ocean of love, seeking in vain for the harbor."
"There are many harbors, Manuel, for the brave sailor. If one is closed, another is open. He hoists sail, and beats across the main to another port."
"For some. But there are others who will to one port or none. I am of those."
When she left him it was with the feeling that Don Manuel would be hard hit, if she found herself unable to respond to his love.
He was not like this American, competent, energetic, full of the turbulent life of a new nation which turns easily from defeat to fresh victory.
Her heart was full of sympathy, and even pity, for him. But these are only akin to love.
It was not long before Valencia began to suspect that she had not been told the whole truth about the affair of the outlaw horse. There was some air of mystery, of expectation, among her vaqueros.
At her approach, conversation became suspended, and perceptibly shifted to other topics. Moreover, Pedro was troubled in his mind, out of all proportion to the extent of his wound.
She knew it would be no use to question him; but she made occasion soon to send for Juan Gardiez, the lad who had driven him home.
From the doorway of the living-room, Juan presently ducked a bow at her.
"The senorita sent for me?"
"Yes. Come in, Juan. Take that chair."
Now, though Juan had often sat down in the kitchen, he had never before been invited to seat himself in this room. Wherefore, the warm smile that now met him, and went with the invitation, filled him with a more than mild surprise. Gingerly he perched himself on the edge of a chair, twirling his dusty sombrero round and round as a relief to his embarrassment.
"I am sorry, Juan, that you don't like me or trust me any longer," his mistress began.
"But, dona, I do," exclaimed the boy, nearly falling from his chair in amazement.
She shook her head.
"No; I can see you don't. None of you do. You keep secrets from me. You whisper and hide things."
"But, no, senorita——"
"Yes. I can see it plainly. My people do not love me. I must go away from them, since——"
Juan, having in his tender boyish heart a great love for his dona, could not stand this.
"No, no, no, senorita! It is not so. I do assure you it is a mistake. There is nothing about the cattle, nothing about the sheep you do not know. It is all told—all."
"Muy bien. Yet you conceal what happened yesterday to Pedro."
"He was thrown——"
She stopped him with a gesture.
"I don't want to know that again. Tell me what is in the air; what is planned for Senor Gordon; what Pedro has to do with it? Tell me, or leave me to know my people no longer love me."
The boy shook his head and let his eyes fall before her clear gaze.
"I can tell nothing."
"Look at me, Juan," she commanded, and waited till he obeyed. "Pedro it was that shot at this man Gordon. Is it not so?"
His eyes grew wide.
"Some one has told?" he said questioningly.
"No matter. It was he. Yesterday the American saved his life. Surely Pedro does not still——"
She did not finish in words, but her eyes chiseled into his stolid will to keep silent.
"The stranger invites evil. He would rob the senorita and us all. He has said he would horsewhip Pedro. He rides up and down the valley, taunting us with his laugh. Is he a god, and are we slaves?"
"He said he would horsewhip Pedro, did he?"
"Si senorita; when Pedro told him to take his life, since it was his."
"And this was after Pedro had been thrown?"
"Directly after. The American is a devil, dona. He rode that man-killer like Satan. Did he not already know that it was Pedro who shot at him? Is not Pedro a sure shot, and did he not miss twice? Twice, senorita; which makes it certain that this Senor Gordon is a devil."
"Don't talk nonsense, Juan. I want to know how he came to tell Pedro that he would whip him."
"He came up to the piazza when he had broken the heart of that other devil, the man-killer, and Pedro was sitting there. Then Pedro told him that he was the one who had shot at him, but he only laughed. He always laughs, this fiend. He knew it already, just as he knows everything. Then it was he said he had saved the boy to whip him."
"And that is all?"
"Por Dios—all" shrugged the lad.
"Are there others beside you that believe this nonsense about the American being in league with evil?"
"It is not nonsense, senorita, begging your pardon," protested Juan earnestly. "And Ferdinand and Pablo and Sebastian, they all believe it."
Valencia knew this complicated the situation. These simple peons would do, under the impulsion of blind bigotry, what they would hesitate to do otherwise. Let them think him a devil, and they would stick at nothing to remove him.
Her first thought was that she must keep informed of the movements of her people. Otherwise she would not be able to frustrate them.
"Juan, if this man is really what you think, he will work magic to destroy those who oppose him. It will not be safe for any of my people to set themselves against him. I know a better way to attack him. I want to talk with Pablo and Sebastian. You must work with me. If they try to do anything, let me know at once; otherwise they will be in great danger. Do you understand?"
"And will you let me know, quietly, without telling them?"
"That is good. Now, I know my Juan trusts and loves his mistress. You have done well. Go, now."
From the point of view of her people the girl knew it was all settled. If the stranger whipped Pedro, the boy would kill him unless he used magic to prevent it. If he did use it, they must contrive to nullify his magic. There was, too, Don Manuel, who would surely strike soon, and however the encounter might terminate, it was a thing to dread miserably.
But, though her misery was acute, she was of a temperament too hopeful and impulsive to give up to despair so long as action was possible. While she did not yet know what she could do, she was not one to sit idle while events hurried to a crisis.
Meantime she had her majordomo order a horse saddled for her to ride over to Corbett's for the mail.
MR. AINSA DELIVERS A MESSAGE
Back to Davis, who had stopped to tighten his saddle-girth, came Dick Gordon's rather uncertain tenor in rollicking song:
"Bloomin' idol made o' mud— Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd— Plucky lot she cared for idols when I Kissed 'er where she stud!"
"There he goes, advertising himself for a target to every greaser in the county. Pity he can't ride along decent, if he's got to ride at all in these hills, where every gulch may be a trap," grumbled the old miner.
He jerked the leather strap down with a final tug, pulled himself to the saddle, and cantered after his friend.
"Elephints a pilin' teak In the sludgy, squdgy creek, Where the silence 'ung that 'eavy you Was 'arf afraid to speak!"
"No danger of the silence hanging heavy here while you're around trying to be a whole opery troupe all by your lonesome," suggested Davis. "Seems to me if you got to trapse round this here country hunting for that permanent residence, it ain't necessary to disturb the Sabbath calm so on-feelin'. I don't seem to remember hearing any great demand for an encore after the rendering of the first verse."
"You do ce'tainly remind me of a lien with one chick, Steve," laughed Dick.
"I ain't worrying about you none. It's my own scalp kinder hangs loose every time you make one of your fool-plays," explained the other.
"Go pipe that up to your granny. Think I ain't learned my ABC's about my dry-nurse yet?"
"I'm going back to the gold camp to-morrow."
"You been saying that ever since you came here. Why don't you go, old Calamity Prophet?"
"Well, I am. Going to-morrow."
"You've hollered wolf too often, Steve. I'll believe it when I see it."
"Well, why don't you behave? What's the use of making a holy Caruso of yourself? Nobody ain't ever pined to hear you tune up, anyhow."
"All right. Mum's the word, old hoss. I'll be as solemn as if I was going to my own funeral."
"I ain't persuaded yet you're not."
"I'm right fully persuaded. Hallo! Stranger visiting at Corbett's. Guess I'll unlimber the artillery."
They dismounted, and, before turning over his horse to Yeager, Dick unstrapped from the saddle his rifle. Nowadays he never for a moment was separated from some weapon of defense. For he knew that an attack upon his life was almost a certainty in the near future. Though his manner was debonair, he saw to it that nobody got a chance to tamper with his guns.
"Make you acquainted with Mr. Ramon Ainsa, gentlemen. Mr. Gordon—Mr. Davis," said Corbett, standing in the doorway in his shirt-sleeves.
Mr. Ainsa, a very young man with the hint of a black mustache over his boyish mouth, clicked his heels together and bowed deeply. He expressed himself as delighted, but did not offer to shake hands. He was so stiff that Dick wanted to ask him whether the poker he had swallowed was indigestible.
"I am the bearer of a message to Mr. Richard Muir Gordon," he said with another bow.
"My name," acknowledged its owner. "You ain't missed a letter of it. Must have been at the christening, I expect."
"A message from Don Manuel Pesquiera."
"Good enough. That's right friendly of him. How's the don?"
And Dick, the sparkle of malicious humor gleaming in his eye, shook Mr. Ainsa warmly by the hand, in spite of that gentleman's effort to escape.
The messenger sidestepped as soon as he could, and began again, very red:
"Don Manuel considers himself deeply insulted, and desires through me, his friend, to present this note."
Dick looked at the envelope, and back at the youth who had handed it to him, after which he crowded in and pump-handled the other's arm again.
"That's awfully good of him, Mr. 'Tain't-so."
"My name is Ainsa, at your service," corrected the New Mexican.
"Beg pardon—Ainsa. I expect I hadn't ought to have irrigated the don so thorough, but it's real good of him to overlook it and write me a friendly note. It's uncommon handsome of him after I disarranged his laundry so abrupt."
"If the senor will read the letter—" interrupted the envoy desperately.
"Certainly. But let me offer you something to drink first, Mr. Ain't-so."
"Ainsa, I should say. A plain American has to go some to round up and get the right brand on some of these blue-blooded names of yours. What'll it be?"
"Thank you. I am not thirsty. I prefer not." With which Mr. Ainsa executed another bow.
"Just as you say, colonel. But you'll let me know if you change your mind."
Dick indicated a chair to his visitor, and took another himself; then leisurely opened the epistle and read it. After he had done so he handed it to Davis.
"This is for you, too, Steve. The don is awfully anxious to have you meet Mr. Ainsa and have a talk with him," chuckled Gordon.
"'To arrange a meeting with your friend,' Why, it's a duel he means, Dick."
"That's what I gathered. We're getting right up in society. A duel's more etiquettish than bridge-whist, Steve. Ain't you honored, being invited to one. You're to be my second, you see."
"I'm hanged if I do," exploded the old miner promptly.
"Sho! It ain't hard, when you learn the steps."
"I ain't going to have nothing to do with it. Tommyrot! That's what I call it."
"Don't say it so loud, Steve, or you'll hurt Mr. Ainsa's feelings," chided his partner.
"Think I'm going to make a monkey of myself at my age?"
Dick turned mournfully to the messenger of war.
"I'm afraid it's off, Mr. Ainsa. My second says he won't play."
"We shall be very glad to furnish you a second, sir."
"All right, and while you're at it furnish a principal, too. I'm an American. I write my address Cripple Creek, Colorado, U.S.A. We don't fight duels in my country any more. They've gone out with buckled shoes and knee-pants, Mr. Ainsa."
"Do I understand that Mr. Gordon declines to meet my friend on the field of honor?"
"That's the size of it."
"I am then instruct' to warn you to go armed, as my friend will punish your insolence at sight informally."
It was just at this moment that Mrs. Corbett, flushed with the vain chase of her fleeing brood of chickens, came perspiring round the house. Her large, round person, not designed by nature for such arduous exercise, showed signs of fatigue.
"I declare, if them chickens ain't got out, and me wanting two for supper," she panted, arms on her ample hips.
"That's too bad. Let me chase them," volunteered Dick.
He grasped his rifle, took a quick, careless aim, and fired. A long-legged, flying cockerel keeled over and began to kick.
"Gracious me!" ejaculated the woman.
"Two, did you say?" asked the man behind the gun.
"I said two."
Again the rifle cracked. A second chicken flopped down, this one with its head shot off at the neck.
The eyes of the minister of war were large with amazement. The distance had been seventy yards, if it had been a step. When little Jimmie Corbett came running forward with the two dead cockerels a slight examination showed that the first had also been shot through the neck.
"Shall I shoot another and send it for a present to Don Manuel, Jimmie?" he pleasantly inquired.
Mr. Ainsa met his persiflage promptly.
"I do assure you, senor, it will not be at all necesair. Don Manuel can shoot chickens for himself—and larger game."
"I'm sure he'll find good hunting," the other gave him back, looking up genially.
"He is a good hunter, senor."
"Don't doubt it a bit," granted the cordial Anglo-Saxon. "Trouble is that even the best hunters can't tell whether they are going to bring back the bear, or Mr. Bear is going to get them. That's what makes it exciting, I reckon."
"Is Don Manuel going bear-hunting?" asked Jimmie, with a newly aroused boy interest.
"Yes, Jimmie. One's been bothering him right considerable, and he's going gunning for it," explained Dick.
"Gee! I hope he gets it."
"And I hope he don't," laughed Gordon. "Must you really be going, colonel? Can't I do a thing for you in the refreshment line first? Well, so long. Good hunting for your friend. See him later."
Thus cheerfully did the irrepressible Gordon speed Mr. Ainsa on his way.
That young man had somehow the sense of having been too youthful to cope with the gay Gordon.
* * * * *
Valencia Valdes had not ridden far when she met Ramon Ainsa returning from his mission. He was a sunny young fellow, whom she had known since they had been children together.
It occurred to her that he bore himself in a manner that suggested something important on hand. His boyish mouth was set severely, and he greeted her with a punctilio quite unusual. At once she jumped shrewdly to a conclusion.
"Did you bring our mail back with you from Corbett's?" she innocently inquired.
"Since when have I been 'senorita' to you, Ramon?"
"Valencia, I should say." He blushed.
"Indeed, I should think so. It hasn't been so long since you called me Val."
"Ah! Those happy days!" he sighed.
"Fiddlesticks!" she promptly retorted. "Don't be a goose. You're not in the sere and yellow yet. Don't forget you'll not be twenty-one till next month."
"One counts time not by years, but by its fullness," he said, in the manner of one who could tell volumes if he would.
"I see. And what has been happening of such tremendous importance?"
Mr. Ainsa attempted to twirl his mustache, and was as silent as honor demanded.
"Pooh! It's no secret. Did you find Mr. Gordon at home?"
"At home?" he gasped.
"Well, at Corbett's, then?"
"I didn't know—— Who told you—er——"
"I'm not blind and deaf and dumb, you know."
"But you certainly have a great deal of imagination," he said, recovering himself.
"Not a bit of it. You carried a challenge to this American from Don Manuel. Now, I want to know the answer."
"Really, my dear girl——"
"You needn't try to evade me. I'm going to know, if I stay here all night."
"It's a hold-up, as the Americans say," he joked.
"I don't care what you call it. You have got to tell me, you know."
"But I can't tell you, nina. It isn't mine to tell."
"Anyhow, you can't keep me from guessing," she said, with an inspiration.
"No, I don't see how I can very well," he admitted.
"The American accepted the challenge immediately."
"But he didn't," broke out the young man.
"Then he refused?"
"That's a little obvious now," replied Ramon, with a touch of chagrin.
"He was very angry about it, and threatened to call the law to his aid."
Her friend surrendered at discretion, and broke into a laugh of delight.
"I never saw such a fellow, Val. He seemed to think it was all a joke. He must have known why I was there, but before I could get in a word he got hold of my hand and shook it till I wanted to shriek with the pain. He's got a grip like a bear. And he persisted in assuming we were the best of friends. Wouldn't read the letter at all."
"But after he did?"
"Said duels were not fashionable among his people any more."
"He is very sensible, but I'm afraid Manuel won't rest satisfied with that," the girl sighed.
"I hinted as much, and told him to go armed. What do you think the madman did then?"
"I can never guess."
Ramon retailed the chicken-shooting episode.
"You were to mention that to Manuel, I suppose?'" the girl said thoughtfully.
"So I understood. He was giving fair warning."
"But Manuel won't be warned."
"When he hears of it he'll be more anxious than ever to fight."
Valencia nodded. "A spur to a willing horse."
"If he knew he would be killed it would make no difference to him. He is quite fearless."
"But he is a very good shot, too. You do not need to be alarmed for him."
"Oh, no! Not at all," the girl answered scornfully. "He is only my distant cousin, anyhow—and my lover."
"It is hard, Val. Perhaps I might pick a quarrel with this American and——"
She caught him up sharply, but he forgave it when he saw her white misery.
"Don't you dare think of it, Ramon Ainsa. One would think nobody in the valley had any business except fighting with this man. What has he done to you? Or to these others? You are very brave, all of you, when you know you are a hundred to one. I suppose you, too, will want to shoot him from ambush?"
This bit of feminine injustice hurt the young man, but he only said quietly:
"No; I don't think I would do that."
Impulsively she put out her hand.
"Forgive me, Ramon. I don't mean that, of course, but I'm nearly beside myself. Why must all this bad will and bloodshed come into our happy little valley? If we must have trouble why can't we let the law settle it? I thought you were my friends—you and Manuel and my people—but between you I am going to be made unhappy for life."
She broke down suddenly and began to sob. The lad slipped to the ground and went quickly to her, putting an arm around her waist across the saddle.
"Don't cry, Val. We all love you—of course we do. How can we help it? It will all come right yet. Don't cry, nina"
"How can it come right, with all of you working to make things wrong?" she sobbed.
"Perhaps the stranger will go away."
"He won't. He is a man, and he won't let you drive him out."
"We'll find some way, Val, to save Manuel for you."
"But it isn't only Manuel. I don't want any of you hurt—you or anybody—not even this Mr. Gordon. Oh, Ramon, help me to stop this wicked business."
"If you can tell me how."
She dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief, as a sign that her weakness was past.
"We must find a way. Do you know, my own people are in a dangerous mood? They think this man's some kind of a demon. I shall talk to them to-night. And you must send Manuel to me. Perhaps he may listen to me."
Ainsa agreed, though he felt sure that even she could not induce his friend to withdraw from a position which he felt his honor called him to take.
Nor did the mistress of the valley find it easy to lead her tenants to her way of thinking. They were respectful, outwardly acquiescent, but the girl saw, with a sinking heart, that they remained of their own opinion. Whether he were man or devil, they were determined to make an end of Gordon's intrusion.
THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY AND THE TWENTIETH
It was the second day after Pesquiera's challenge that his rival was called to Santa Fe, the capital of the State, to hold a conference with his lawyers about the progress of the suit of ouster against those living on the Moreno grant. Gordon knew how acute was the feeling of the residents of the valley against him. The Corbetts, whose homestead was not included in either the original Valdes or Moreno grant, reported daily to him whatever came to their ears. He could see that the impression was strong among the Mexicans that their champion, Dona Maria as they called her, would be worsted in the courts if the issue ever came to final trial.
To live under the constant menace of an attack from ambush is a strain upon the best of nerves. Dick and his friend Davis rode out of the valley to meet the Santa Fe stage with a very sensible relief. For a few days, anyhow, they would be back where they could see the old Stars and Stripes flutter, where feudal retainers and sprouts of Spanish aristocracy were not lying in wait with fiery zeal to destroy the American interloper.
They reached the little city late, but soon after sunup Gordon rose, took a bath, dressed, and strolled out into the quaint old town which lays claim to being the earliest permanent European settlement in the country. It was his first visit to the place, and as he poked his nose into out of the way corners Dick found every step of his walk interesting.
Through narrow, twisted streets he sauntered, along unpaved roads bounded by century-old adobe houses. His walk took him past the San Miguel Church, said to be the oldest in America. A chubby-faced little priest was watering some geraniums outside, and he showed Dick through the mission, opening the door of the church with one of a bunch of large keys which hung suspended from his girdle. The little man went through the usual patter of the guide with the facility of long practice.
The church was built, he said, in 1540, though Bandelier inaccurately sets the date much later. The roof was destroyed by the Pueblo Indians in 1680 during an attack upon the settlement, at which time the inhabitants took refuge within the mission walls. These are from three to five feet thick. The arrows of the natives poured through the windows. The senor could still see the holes in the pictures, could he not? Penuelo restored the church in 1710, as could be read by the inscription carved upon the gallery beam. It would no doubt interest the senor to know that one of the paintings was by Cimabue, done in 1287, and that the seven hundred pound bell was cast in Spain during the year 1356 and had been dragged a thousand miles across the deserts of the new world by the devoted pioneer priests who carried the Cross to the simple natives of that region.
Gordon went blinking out of the San Miguel mission into a world that basked indolently in a pleasant glow of sunshine. It seemed to him that here time had stood still. This impression remained with him during his tramp back to the hotel. He passed trains of faggot-laden burros, driven by Mexicans from Tesuque and by Indians from adjoining villages, the little animals so packed around their bellies with firewood that they reminded him of caricatures of beruffed Elizabethan dames of the olden days.
Surely this old town, which seemed to be lying in a peaceful siesta for centuries unbroken, was an unusual survival from the buried yesterdays of history. It was hard to believe, for instance, that the Governor's Palace, a long one-story adobe structure stretching across one entire side of the plaza, had been the active seat of so much turbulent and tragic history, that for more than three hundred years it had been occupied continuously by Spanish, Mexican, Indian, and American governors. Its walls had echoed the noise of many a bloody siege and hidden many an execution and assassination. From this building the old Spanish cavaliers Onate and Vicente de Salivar and Penalosa set out on their explorations. From it issued the order to execute forty-eight Pueblo prisoners upon the plaza in front. Governor Armijo had here penned his defiance to General Kearney, who shortly afterward nailed upon the flagpole the Stars and Stripes. The famous novel "Ben Hur" was written in one of these historic rooms.
But the twentieth century had leaned across the bridge of time to shake hands with the sixteenth. A new statehouse had been built after the fashion of new Western commonwealths, and the old Palace was now given over to curio stores and offices. Everywhere the new era compromised with the old. He passed the office of the lawyer he had come to consult, and upon one side of the sign ran the legend:
- Despacho de Thomas M. Fitt, Licendiado. -
Upon the other he read an English translation:
- Law Office of Thomas M. Fitt, Attorney. -
Plainly the old civilization was beginning to disappear before an alert, aggressive Americanism.
At the hotel the modern spirit became so pronounced during breakfast, owing to the conversation of a shoe and a dress-goods drummer at an adjoining table, that Gordon's imagination escaped from the tramp of Spanish mailclad cavalry and from thoughts of the plots and counterplots that had been devised in the days before American occupancy.
In the course of the morning Dick, together with Davis, called at the office of his attorney. Thomas M. Fitt, a bustling little man with a rather pompous manner, welcomed his client effusively. He had been appointed local attorney in charge by Gordon's Denver lawyers, and he was very eager to make the most of such advertising as his connection with so prominent a case would bring.
He washed the backs of his hands with the palms as he bowed his visitors to chairs.
"I may say that the case is progressing favorably—very favorably indeed, Mr. Gordon. The papers have been drawn and filed. We await an answer from the defendants. I anticipate that there will be only the usual court delays in pressing the action."
"We'll beat them, I suppose," Dick replied, with a manner almost of indifference.
"One can never be positive in advance, but I'd like to own your claim to the estate, Mr. Gordon," laughed the lawyer wheezily.
"Think we'll be able to wolf the real owners out of their property all right, do you?"
Fitt's smile went out like the flame of a burnt match. The wrinkles of laughter were ironed out of his fat cheeks. He stared at his client in surprise. It took him a moment to voice the dignified protest he felt necessary.
"Our title is good in law, Mr. Gordon. I have been over the evidence very carefully. The court decisions all lean our way. Don Bartolome Valdes, the original grantee, failed to perfect his right of ownership in many ways. It is very doubtful whether he himself had not before his death abandoned his claim. His official acts appear to point to that conclusion. Our case is a very substantial one—very substantial, indeed."
"The Valdes' tenants have settled on the land, grazed their flocks over it, bought farms here and there from the heirs, haven't they?"
"Exactly. But if the sellers cannot show a good title—and my word as a lawyer for it they can't. Prove that in court and all we'll need is a writ of ejectment against the present holders as squatters. Then——" Fitt snapped his finger and thumb in an airy gesture that swept the Valdes' faction into the middle of the Pacific.
"It'll be the story of Evangeline all over again, won't it?" asked Gordon satirically.
"Ah! You have a kind heart, Mr. Gordon. Your sympathy does you credit. Still—business is business, of course."
"Of course," Dick picked up a pen and began to jab holes aimlessly into a perfectly good blotter tacked to the table. "Well, let's hear the story—just a sketch of it. Why do the rightful heirs lose out and the villain gain possession?"
Mr. Fitt smiled blandly. He had satisfied himself that his client was good pay and he did not intend to take offense. "It pleases you to be facetious, Mr. Gordon. But we all know that what this country needs—what such a valley as the Rio Chama ought to have—is up to date American development. People and conditions are in a primitive state. When men like you get possession of the Moreno and similar tracts New Mexico will move forward with giant strides to its great destiny. Time does not stand still. The day of the indolent semi-feudal Spanish system of occupancy has passed away. New Mexico will no longer remain manana land. You—and men like you—of broad ideas, progressive, energetic——"
"Quite a philanthropist, ain't I?" interrupted Gordon, smiling lazily. "Well, let's hear the yarn, Mr. Fitt."
The attorney gave up his oration regretfully. He subsided into a chair and resumed the conversational tone.
"You've got to understand how things were here in the old Spanish days, gentlemen. Don Bartolome for instance was not merely a cattleman. He was a grandee, a feudal lord, a military chief to all his tenants and employees. His word was law. The power of life and death lay in him."
Dick nodded. "Get you."
"The old Don was pasturing his sheep in the Rio Chama valley and he had started a little village there—called the place Torreon, I think, from a high tower house he had built to overlook the valley so that Indians could be seen if they attempted an attack. Well, he takes a notion that he'd better get legal title to the land he was using, though in those days he might have had half of New Mexico for his cattle and sheep as a range. So he asks Facundo Megares, governor of the royal province, for a grant of land. The governor, anxious to please him, orders the constitutional alcalde, a person named Jose Garcia de la Mora, to execute the act of possession to Valdes of a tract described as follows, to wit——"
"I've heard the description," cut in the young man. "Well, did the Don take possession?"
"We claim that he never did. He visited there, and his shepherds undoubtedly ran sheep on the range covered by the grant. But Valdes and his family never actually resided on the estate. Other points that militate against the claim of his descendants may be noted. First, that minor grants of land, taken from within the original Valdes grant, were made by the governor without any protest on the part of the Don. Second, that Don Bartolome himself, subsequently Governor and Captain-General of the province of New Mexico, did, in his official capacity as President of the Council, endorse at least two other small grants of land cut out from the heart of the Valdes estate. This goes to show that he did not himself consider that he owned the land, or perhaps he felt that he had forfeited his claim."
"Or maybe it just showed that the old gentleman was no hog," suggested Gordon.
"I guess the law will construe it as a waiver of his claim. It doesn't make any allowances for altruism."
"I've noticed that," Gordon admitted dryly.
"A new crowd of politicians got in after Mexico became independent of Spain. The plums had to be handed out to the friends of the party in power. So Manuel Armijo, the last Mexican Governor of the province, being a favorite of the President of that country because he had defeated some Texas Rangers in a battle, and on that account endowed with extraordinary powers, carved a fat half million acres out of the Valdes grant and made a present of it to Jose Moreno for 'services to the government of Mexico.' That's where you come in as heir to your grandfather, who purchased for a song the claim of Moreno's son."
"My right has been lying dormant twenty-five years. Won't that affect its legality?"
"No. If we knock out the Valdes' grant, all we have to do is to prove the legality of the Moreno one. It happens we have evidence to show that he satisfied all legal requirements by living on the land more than four years. This gave him patent in perpetuity subject to taxes. By the payment of these we can claim title." Fitt rubbed his hands and walked backward and forward briskly. "We've got them sewed up tight, Mr. Gordon. The Supreme Court has sustained our contention in the almost parallel Baca case."
"Fine," said Dick moodily. He knew it was unreasonable for him to be annoyed at his counsel because the latter happened to be an alert and competent lawyer. But somehow all his sympathies were with Valencia Valdes and her dependents.
"If you'd like to look at the original documents in the case, Mr. Gordon——"
"I'll take you up to the State House this afternoon. You can look over them at your leisure."
Davis laughed at his friend as they walked back to the hotel.
"I don't believe you know yourself what you want. You act as if you'd rather lose than win the suit."
"Sometimes I'm a white man, Steve. I don't want to grab other people's property just because some one can dig up a piece of paper that says it's mine. We sit back and roast the trusts to a fare-you-well for hogging all there is in sight. That's what Fitt and his tribe expect me to do. I'm damned if I will."
"I BELIEVE YOU'RE IN LOVE WITH HER, TOO"
It was characteristic of Dick Gordon that he established at once a little relation of friendliness between him and the young woman at the State House who waited upon him with the documents in the Valdes grant case. She was a tall, slight girl with amazingly vivid eyes set in a face scarcely pretty. In her manner to the world at large there was an indifference amounting almost to insolence. She had a way of looking at people as if they were bits of the stage setting instead of individuals.
A flare of interest had sparkled in her eyes when Gordon's fussy little attorney had mentioned the name of his client, but it had been Dick's genial manner of boyish comradeship that had really warmed Miss Underwood to him. She did not like many people, but when she gave her heart to a friend it was without stipulations. Dick was a man's man. Essentially he was masculine, virile, dominant. But the force of him was usually masked either by his gay impudence or his sunny friendliness. Women were drawn to his flashing smile because they sensed the strength behind it.
Kate Underwood could have given a dozen reasons why she liked him. There were for instance the superficial ones. She liked the way he tossed back the tawny sun-kissed hair from his eyes, the easy pantherish stride with which he covered ground so lightly, the set of his fine shoulders, the peculiar tint of his lean, bronzed cheeks. His laugh was joyous as the song of a bird in early spring. It made one want to shout with him. Then, too, she tremendously admired his efficiency. To look at the hard, clear eye, at the clean, well-packed build of the man, told the story. The movements of his strong, brown hands were sure and economical. They dissipated no energy. Every detail of his personality expressed a mind that did its own thinking swiftly and incisively.
"It's curious about these documents of the old Valdes and Moreno claims. They have lain here in the vaults—that is, here and at the old Governor's Palace—for twenty years and more untouched. Then all at once twenty people get interested in them. Scarce a day passes that lawyers are not up to look over some of the copies. You have certainly stirred things up with your suit, Mr. Gordon."
Dick looked out of the window at the white adobe-lined streets resting in a placid coma of sun-beat.
"Don't you reckon Santa Fe can stand a little stirring up, Miss Underwood?"
"Goodness, yes. We all get to be three hundred years old if we live in this atmosphere long enough."
The man's gaze shifted. "You'd have to live here a right long time, I reckon."
A quick slant of her gay eyes reproached him. "You don't have to be so gallant, Mr. Gordon. The State pays me fifteen hundred dollars a year to wait on you, anyhow."
"You don't say. As much as that? My, we're liable to go bankrupt in New Mexico, ain't we? And, if you want to know, I don't say nice things to you because I have to, but because I want to."
She laughed with a pretense at incredulity. "In another day or two I'll find out just what special favor I'm able to do Mr. Gordon. The regular thing is to bring flowers or candy, you know. Generally they say, too, that there never has been a clerk holding this job as fit for it as I am."
"You're some clerk, all right. Say, where can I find the original of this Agua Caliente grant, Miss Kate?"
She smiled to herself as she went to get him a certified copy. "Only two days, and he's using my first name. Inside of a week he'll be calling me 'Dearie,'" she thought. But she knew very well there was no danger. This young fellow was the kind of man that could be informal without the slightest idea of flirting or making love.
Kate Underwood's interest in the fight between the claimants for the Valdes and Moreno grants was not based entirely upon her liking for Dick. He learned this the fourth day of his stay in Santa Fe.
"Do you know that you were followed to the hotel last night, Mr. Gordon?" she asked him, as soon as he arrived at the State House.
His eyes met hers instantly. "Was I? How do you know?"
"I left the building just after you did. Two Mexicans followed you. I don't know when I first suspected it, but I trailed along to make sure. There can be no doubt about it."
"Not a bit of doubt. Found it out the first day when I left the hotel," he told her cheerfully.
"You knew it all the time," she cried, amazed.
"That doesn't prevent me from being properly grateful to you for your kindness," he hastened to say.
"What are they following you for?" she wanted to know.
Dick told her something of his experiences in the Rio Chama Valley without mentioning that part of them which had to do with Miss Valdes. At the sound of Manuel Pesquiera's name the eyes of the girl flashed. Dick had already noticed that his name was always to her a signal for repression of some emotion. The eyes contracted and hardened the least in the world. Some men would not have noticed this, but more than once Gordon's life had hung upon the right reading of such signs.
"You think that Mr. Pesquiera has hired them to watch you?" she suggested.
"Maybe he has and maybe he hasn't. Some of those willing lads of Miss Valdes don't need any hiring. They want to see what I'm up to. They're not overlooking any bets."
"But they may shoot you."
He looked at her drolly. "They may, but I'll be there at the time. I'm not sleeping on the job, Miss Kate."
"You didn't turn around once yesterday."
"Hmp! I saw them out of the edge of my eyes. And when I turned a corner I always saw them mighty plain. They couldn't have come very close without my knowing it."
"Don Manuel is very anxious to have Miss Valdes win, isn't he?"
Dick observed that just below the eyes two spots were burning in the usually pale cheeks.
"Yes," he answered simply.
"He's her friend and a relative."
It seemed to Gordon that there was a touch of defiance in the eyes that held to his so steadily. She was going to find out the truth, no matter what he thought.
"Is that all—nothing more than a friend or a relative?"
The miner's boyish laugh rippled out. "You'd ought to have been a lawyer, Miss Kate. No, that ain't all Don Manuel doesn't make any secret of it. I don't know why I should. He wants to be prince consort of the Valdes kingdom."
"Because of ... the estate?"
"Lord, no! He's one man from the ground up, M. Pesquiera is. In spite of the estates."
"You mean that he ... loves Valencia Valdes?"
"Sure he does. Manuel doesn't care much who gets the kingdom if he gets the princess."
"Is she so ... pretty?"
Dick stopped to consider this. "Why, yes, I reckon she is pretty, though I hadn't thought of it before. You see, pretty ain't just the word. She's a queen. That is, she looks like a queen ought to but don't. Take her walk for instance: she steps out like as if in another moment she might fly."
"That doesn't mean anything. It's almost silly," replied the downright Miss Underwood, not without a tinge of spite.
"It means something to me. I'm trying to give you a picture of her. But you'd have to see her to understand. When she's around mean and little things crawl out of your mind. She's on the level and square and fine—a thoroughbred if there ever was one."
"I believe you're in love with her, too."
The young man found himself blushing. "Now don't get to imagining foolishness. Miss Valdes hates the ground I walk on. She thinks I'm the limit, and she hasn't forgotten to tell me so."
"Which, of course, makes you fonder of her," scoffed Miss Underwood. "Does she hate the ground that Don Manuel walks on?"
"Now you've got me. I go to the foot of the class, because I don't know."
"But you wish you did," she flung at him, with a swift side glance.
"Guessing again, Miss Kate. I'll sure report you if you waste the State's time on such foolishness," he threatened gaily.
"Since you're in love with her, why don't you marry Miss Valdes and consolidate the two claims?" demanded the girl.
Her chin was tilted impudently toward him, but Gordon guessed that there was an undercurrent of meaning in her audacity.
"What commission do you charge for running your matrimonial bureau?" he asked innocently.
"The service comes free to infants," she retorted sweetly.
She was called away to attend to other business. An hour later she passed the desk where he was working.
"So you think I'm an infant at that game, do you?"
"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings," was her saucy answer.
"You haven't—not a mite. What about Don Manuel? Is he an infant at it, too?"
A sudden flame of color swept her face. The words she flung at Gordon seemed irrelevant, but he did not think them so. "I hate him."
And with that she was gone.
Dick's eyes twinkled. He had discovered another reason for her interest in his fortunes.
Later in the day, when the pressure of work had relaxed, the clerk drifted his way again while searching for some papers.
"Your lawyers are paid to look up all this, aren't they? Why do you do it, then?" she asked.
"The case interests me. I want to know all about it."
"Would you like to see the old Valdes house here in Santa Fe? My father bought it when Alvaro Valdes built his new town house. One day I found in the garret a bundle of old Spanish letters. They were written by old Bartolome to his son. I saved them. Would you care to see them?"
"Very much. The old chap was a great character. I suppose he was really the last of the great feudal barons. The French Revolution put an end to them in Europe—that and the industrial revolution. It's rather amazing that out here in the desert of this new land dedicated to democracy the idea was transplanted and survived so long."
"I'll bring the letters to-morrow and you can look them over. Any time you like I'll show you over the house. It's really rather interesting—much more so than their new one, which is so modern that it looks like a thousand others. Valencia was born in the old house. What will you give me to let you into the room?"
He brushed aside her impudence with a laugh. "Your boss is looking this way. I think he's getting ready to fire you."
"He's more likely to be fired himself. I'm under civil service and he isn't. Will you take your shoes off when you go into the holy of holies?"
"What happens to little girls when they ask too many questions? Go 'way. I'm busy."
On her return from luncheon that same afternoon Miss Underwood brought Dick a bundle of letters tied with a ribbon. She tossed them down upon the desk in front of him.
"I haven't read them myself. Of course they're in Spanish. I did try to get through one of them, but it was too much like work and I gave it up. But since they're written by her grandfather they'll interest you more than they did me," Miss Kate told him, with the saucy tilt to her chin that usually accompanied her impudence.
He had lived in Chihuahua three years as a mining engineer, so that he spoke and read Spanish readily. The old Don wrote a stiff angular hand, but as soon as he became accustomed to it Dick found little difficulty. Some of the letters were written from the ranch, but most of them carried the Santa Fe date line at the time the old gentleman was governor of the royal province. They were addressed to his son Alvaro, at that time a schoolboy in Mexico City. Clearly Don Bartolome intended his son to be informed as to the affairs of the province, for the letters were a mine of information in regard to political and social conditions. They discussed at length, too, the business interests of the family and the welfare of the peons dependent upon it.
All afternoon Gordon pored over these fascinating pages torn from a dead and buried past. They were more interesting than any novel he had ever read, for they gave him a photograph, as it were projected by his imagination upon a moving picture canvas, of the old regime that had been swept into the ash heap by modern civilization. The letters revealed the old Don frankly. He was proud, imperious, heady, and intrepid. To his inferiors he was curt but kind. They flocked to him with their troubles and their quarrels. The judgment of their overlord was final with his tenants. Clearly he had a strong sense of his responsibilities to them and to the state. A quaint flavor of old-world courtesy ran through the letters like a thread of gold.
It was a paragraph from one of the last letters that riveted Dick's attention. Translated into English, it ran as follows:
"You ask, my dear son, whether I have relinquished the great grant made us by Facundo Megares. In effect I have. During the past two years I have twice, acting as governor, conveyed to settlers small tracts from this grant. The conditions under which such a grant must be held are too onerous. Moreover, neither I nor you, nor your son, nor his son will live to see the day when there is not range enough for all the cattle that can be brought into the province. Just now time presses, but in a later letter I shall set forth my reasons in detail."
A second and a third time Dick read the paragraph to make sure that he had not misunderstood it. The meaning was plain. There could be no doubt about it. In black and white he had a statement from old Don Bartolome himself that he considered the grant no longer valid, that he had given it up because he did not think it worth holding. He had but to prove the handwriting in court—a thing easy enough to do, since the Don's bold, stiff writing could be found on a hundred documents—and the Valdes claimants would be thrown out of possession.
Gordon looked in vain for the "later letter" to which Bartolome referred. Either it had never been written or it had been destroyed. But without it he had enough to go on.
Before he left the State House he made a proposal to Miss Underwood to buy the letters from her.
"What do you want with a bunch of old letters?" she asked.
"One of them helps my case. The Don refers to the grant and says he has relinquished his claim."
She nodded at him with brisk approval. "It's fair of you to tell me that." The girl stood for a moment considering, a pencil pressed against her lips. "I suppose the letters are not mine to give. They belong to father. Better see him."
"At the office of the New Mexican. Or you can come to the house to-night."
"Believe I'll see him right away."
Within half an hour Dick had bought the bundle of letters for five hundred dollars. He returned to the State House with an order to Kate Underwood to deliver them to him upon demand.
"Dad make a good bargain?" asked Miss Underwood, with a laugh.
Gordon told her the price he had paid.
"If I had telephoned to him what you wanted them for they would have cost you three times as much," she told him, nodding sagely.
"Then I'm glad you didn't. Point of fact you haven't the slightest idea what I want with them."
"To help your suit. Isn't that what you're going to use them for?"
Mildly he answered "Yes," but he did not tell her which suit they were to help.
As he was leaving she spoke to him without looking up from her writing. "Mother and I will be at home this evening, if you'd like to look the house over."
"Thanks. I'd be delighted to come. I'm really awfully interested."
"I see you are," she answered dryly.
Followed by his brown shadows at a respectful distance, Dick walked back to the hotel whistling gaily.
"Some one die and leave you a million dollars, son?" inquired the old miner, with amiable sarcasm.
"Me, I'm just happy because I'm not a Chink," explained his friend, and passed to the hotel writing-room.
He sat down, equipped himself with stationery, and selected a new point for a pen. Half a dozen times he made a start and as often threw a crumpled sheet into the waste-paper basket. It took him nearly an hour to compose an epistle that suited him. What he had finally to content himself with was as follows:
"DEAR MADAM:—Please find inclosed a bundle of letters that apparently belong to you. They have just come into my possession. I therefore send them to you without delay. Your attention is particularly called to the one marked 'Exhibit A.'
"Very truly yours, RICHARD MUIR GORDON."
He wrapped up the letters, including his own, sealed the package carefully, and walked downtown to the post office. Here he wrote upon the cover the name and address of Miss Valencia Valdes, then registered the little parcel with a request for a signed receipt after delivery at its destination.
Davis noticed that at dinner his friend was more gay than usual.
"You ce'tainly must have come into that million I mentioned, judging by your actions," he insisted, with a smile.
"Wrong guess, Steve. I've just been giving away a million. That's why I'm hilarious."
"You'll have to give me an easier one, son. Didn't know you had a million."
"Oh, well! A million, or a half, or a quarter, whatever the Moreno claim is worth. I'm not counting nickels. An hour ago I had it in my fist. I've just mailed it, very respectfully yours, to my friend the enemy." "Suppose you talk simple American that your Uncle Steve can understand, boy. What have you been up to?"
Dick told him exultantly.
"But, good Lord, why for did you make such a play? You had 'em where the wool was short. Now you've let loose and you'll have to wait 'steen years while the courts eat up all the profits. Of all the mule-headed chumps——"
"Hold your horses, Steve. I know what I'm doing. Said I was a spy and a thief and a liar, didn't she? Threw the hot shot into me proper for a cheap skate swindler, eh?" The young man laid down his knife, leaned across the table, and wagged a forefinger at Davis. "What do you reckon that young woman is going to think of herself when she opens that registered package and finds the letter that would have put the rollers under her claim muy pronto?"
"Think! She'll think you the biggest burro that ever brayed on the San Jacinto range. She'll have a commission appointed to examine you for lunacy. What in Mexico is ailin' you, anyhow? You're sick. That's what's wrong. Love-sick, by Moses!" exploded his friend.
Dick smiled blandly. "You've got another guess coming, Steve. She's going to eat dirt because she misjudged me so. She's going to lie awake nights and figure what play she can make to get even again. Getting hold of those blamed letters is the luckiest shot I've made yet. I was in bad—darned bad. Explanations didn't go. I was just a plain ornery skunk. Then I put over this grand-stand play and change the whole situation. She's the one that's in bad now. Didn't she tell me right off the bat what kind of a hairpin I was? Didn't she drive me off the ranch with that game leg of mine all to the bad? Good enough. Now she finds out I'm a white man she's going to be plumb sore at herself."
"What good does that do you? You're making a fight for the Rio Chama Valley, ain't you? Or are you just having a kid quarrel with a girl?"
"I wouldn't take the Rio Chama Valley as a gift if I had to steal it from Miss Valdes and her people. Ain't I making enough money up at Cripple Creek for my needs? No, Steve! I'm playing for bigger game than that. Size up my hand beside Don Manuel's, and it looks pretty bum. But I'm going to play it strong. Maybe at the draw I'll fill."
"Mebbe you won't."
"I can bet it like I had an ace full, can't I? Anybody can play poker when he's got a mitt full of big ones. Show me the man that can make two pair back an all-blue hand off the map."
"Go to it, you old sport. My money's on you," grinned the miner admiringly. "I'll go order a wedding present."
Through the pleasant coolness of the evening Dick sauntered along the streets to the Underwood home, nor was his contentment lessened because he knew that at a safe distance the brown shadows still dogged his steps. In a scabbard fitted neatly beneath his left arm rested a good friend that more than once had saved its owner's life. To the fraction of a second Gordon knew just how long it would take him to get this into action in case of need.
Kate Underwood met him at the door and took her guest into the living-room. Beside a student lamp a plump little old lady sat knitting. Somehow even before her soft voice welcomed him the visitor knew that her gentle presence diffused an atmosphere of home.
"Thee is welcome, Mr. Gordon. Kate has been telling us of thee."
The young man gave no evidence of surprise, but Kate explained as a matter of course.
"We are Friends, and at home we still use the old way of address."
"I have very pleasant memories of the Friends. A good old lady who took the place of my own mother was one. It is nice to hear the speech again," answered Gordon.
Presently the conversation drifted to the Valdes family. It appeared that as children Kate and Valencia had known each other. The heiress of the Valdes estates had been sent to Washington to school, and later had attended college in the East. Since her return she had spent most of her time in the valley. So that it happened the two young women had not met for a good many years.
It occurred to Dick that there was a certain aloofness in Miss Underwood's attitude toward Valencia, a reticence that was not quite unfriendliness but retained the right of criticism. She held her judgment as it were in abeyance.
While Miss Underwood was preparing some simple refreshments Gordon learned from her mother that Manuel Pesquiera had been formerly a frequent caller.
"He has been so busy since he moved down to his place on the Rio Chama that we see nothing of him," she explained placidly. "He is a fine type of the best of the old Spanish families. Thee would find him a good friend."
"Or a good foe," the young man added.
She conceded the point with a sigh. "Yes. He is testy. He has the old patrician pride."
After they had eaten cake and ice cream, Kate showed Gordon over the house. It was built of adobe, and the window seats in the thick walls were made comfortable with cushions or filled with potted plants. Navajo rugs and Indian baskets lent the rooms the homey appearance such furnishings always give in the old Southwest. The house was built around a court in the center, fronting on which were long, shaded balconies both on the first and second floor. A profusion of flowering trailers rioted up the pillars and along the upper railing.
"The old families knew how to make themselves comfortable, anyhow," commented the guest.
"Yes, that's the word—comfort. It's not modern or stylish or up to date, but I never saw a house really more comfortable to live in than this," Miss Underwood agreed. She led the way through a French window from the veranda to a large room with a southern exposure. "How do you like this room?"
"Must catch the morning sunshine fine. I like even the old stone fireplace in the corner. Why don't builders nowadays make such rooms?"
"You've saved yourself, Mr. Gordon. This is the sacred room. Here the Princess of the Rio Chama was born. This was her room when she was a girl until she went away to school. She slept in that very bed. Down on your knees, sir, and worship at the shrine."
He met with a laugh the cool, light scorn of her banter. Yet something in him warmed to his environment. He had the feeling of having come into more intimate touch with her past than he had yet done. The sight of that plain little bed went to the source of his emotions. How many times had his love knelt beside it in her night-gown and offered up her pure prayers to the God she worshiped!
He made his good-byes soon after their return to Mrs. Underwood. Dick was a long way from a sentimentalist, but he wanted to be alone and adjust his mind to the new conception of his sweetheart brought by her childhood home. It was a night of little moonlight. As he walked toward the hotel he could see nothing of the escort that had been his during the past few days. He wondered if perhaps they had got tired of shadowing his movements.
The road along which he was passing had on both sides of it a row of big cottonwoods, whose branches met in an arch above. Dick, with that instinct for safety which every man-hunter has learned, walked down the middle of the street, eyes and ears alert for the least sign of an ambush.
Two men approached on the plank sidewalk. They were quarreling. Suddenly a knife flashed, and one of the men went with an oath to the ground. Dick reached for his gun and plunged straight for the assailant, who had stooped as if to strike again the prostrate man. The rescuer stumbled over a taut rope and at the same moment a swarm of men fell upon him. Even as he rose and shook off the clutching hands Gordon knew that he was the victim of a ruse.
He had lost his revolver in the fall. With clenched fists he struck hard and sure. They swarmed upon him, so many that they got in each other's way. Now he was down, now up again. They swayed to and fro in a huddle, as does a black bear surrounded by a pack of dogs. Still the man at the heart of the melee struck—and struck—and struck again. Men went down and were trodden under foot, but he reeled on, stumbling as he went, turning, twisting, hitting hard and sure with all the strength that many good clean years in the open had stored within him. Blows fell upon his curly head as it rose now and again out of the storm—blows of guns, of knives, of bony knuckles. Yet he staggered forward, bleeding, exhausted, feeling nothing of the blows, seeing only the distorted faces that snarled on every side of him.
He knew that when he went down it would be to stay. Even as he flung them aside and hammered at the brown faces he felt sure he was lost. The coat was torn from his back. The blood from his bruised and cut face and scalp blinded him. Heavy weights dragged at his arms as they struck wildly and feebly. Iron balls seemed to chain his feet. He plowed doggedly forward, dragging the pack with him. Furiously they beat him, striking themselves as often as they did him. His shoulders began to sway forward. Men leaped upon him from behind. Two he dragged down with him as he went. The sky was blotted out. He was tired—deadly tired. In a great weariness he felt himself sinking together.
The consciousness drained out of him as an ebbing wave does from the sands of the shore.
MANUEL TO THE RESCUE
Valencia Valdes did not conform closely to the ideal her preceptress at the Washington finishing school had held as to what constitutes a perfect lady. Occasionally her activities shocked Manuel, who held to the ancient view that maidens should come to matrimony with the innocence born of conventual ignorance. He would have preferred his wife to be a clinging vine, but in the case of Valencia this would be impossible.
No woman in New Mexico could ride better than the heiress of the Rio Chama. She could throw a rope as well as some of her vaqueros. At least one bearskin lay on the floor of her study as a witness to her prowess as a Diana. Many a time she had fished the river in waders and brought back with her to the ranch a creel full of trout. Years in the untempered sun and wind of the southwest had given her a sturdiness of body unusual in a girl so slenderly fashioned. The responsibility of large affairs had added to this an independence of judgment that would have annoyed Don Manuel if he had been less in love.
Against the advice of both Pesquiera and her foreman she had about a year before this time largely increased her holdings in cattle, at the same time investing heavily in improved breeding stock. Her justification had been that the cost of beef, based on the law of supply and demand, was bound to continue on the rise.
"But how do you know, Dona?" her perplexed major domo had asked. "Twenty—fifteen years ago everybody had cattle and lost money. Prices are high to-day, but manana——"
"To-morrow they will be higher. It's just a matter of arithmetic, Fernando. There are seventeen million less cattle in the country than there were eight years ago. The government reports say so. Our population is steadily increasing. The people must eat. Since there are fewer cattle they must pay more for their meat. We shall have meat to sell. Is that not simple?"
"Si, Dona, but——"
"But in the main we have always been sheep-herders, so we ought always to be? We'll run cattle and sheep, too, Fernando. We'll make this ranch pay as it never has before."
"But the feed—the winter feed, Senorita?"
"We'll have to raise our feed. I'm going to send for engineers and find what it will cost to impound, water in the cordilleras and run ditches into the valley. We ought to be watering thousands of acres for alfalfa and grain that now are dry."
"It never has been done—not in the time of Don Alvaro or even in that of Don Bartolome."
"And so you think it never can?" she asked, with a smile.
"The Rio Chama Valley is grazing land. It is not for agriculture. Everybody knows that," he insisted doggedly.
"Everybody knows we were given two legs with which to walk, but it is an economy to ride. So we use horses."
Fernando shrugged his shoulders. Of what use to argue with the dona when her teeth were set? She was a Valdes, and so would have her way.
That had been a year ago. Now the ditches were built. Fields had been planted to alfalfa and grain. Soon the water would be running through the laterals to irrigate the growing crops. Quietly the young woman at the head of things was revolutionizing the life of the valley by transforming it from a pastoral to a farming community.
This morning, having arranged with the major domo the work of the day, Valencia appeared on the porch dressed for riding. She was going to see the water turned on to the new ditches from the north lateral.
The young mistress of the ranch swung astride the horse that had just been brought from the stables, for she rode man-fashion after the sensible custom of the West. Before riding out of the plaza she stopped to give Pedro some directions about a bunch of yearlings in the corral.
The mailman in charge of the R.F.D. route drove into the yard and handed Valencia a bunch of letters and papers. One of the pieces given her was a rather fat package for which she had to sign a registry receipt.
She handed the mail to Juan and told him to put it on the desk in her office library; then she changed her mind, moved by an impulse of feminine curiosity.
"Give me back that big letter, Juan. I'll just see what it is before I go."
Five minutes later she descended to the porch. "I'm not going riding just now. Keep the horse saddled, Pedro." She had read Dick Gordon's note and the letter marked Exhibit A. Even careless Juan noticed that his mistress was much agitated. Pedro wondered savagely whether that splendid devil Americano had done something fresh to annoy the dear saint he worshiped.
Gordon had not overemphasized the effect upon her of his action. Her pride had clung to a belief in his unworthiness as the justification for what she had said and done. Now, with a careless and mocking laugh, he had swept aside all the arguments she had nursed. He had sent to her, so that she might destroy it, the letter that would have put her case out of court. If he had wanted a revenge for her bitter words the American had it now. He had repaid her scorn and contempt with magnanimity. He had heaped coals of fire upon her head, had humiliated her by proving that he was more generous of spirit than she.
Valencia paced the floor of her library in a stress of emotion. It was not her pride alone that had been touched, but the fine instincts of justice and fair play and good will. She had outraged hospitality and sent him packing. She had let him take the long tramp in spite of his bad knee. Her dependents had attempted to murder him. Her best friend had tried to fasten a duel upon him. All over the valley his name had been bandied about as that of one in league with the devil. As an answer to all this outrage that had been heaped upon him he refused to take advantage of this chance-found letter of Bartolome merely because it was her letter and not his. Her heart was bowed down with shame and yet was lifted in a warm glow of appreciation of his quality. Something in her blood sang with gladness. She had known all along that the hateful things she had said to him could not be true. He was her enemy, but—the brave spirit of her went out in a rush to thank God for this proof of his decency.
The girl was all hot for action. She wanted to humble herself in apology. She wanted to show him that she could respond to his generosity. But how? Only one way was open just now.
She sat down and wrote a swift, impulsive letter of contrition. For the wrong she had done him Valencia asked forgiveness. As for the letter he had so generously sent, she must beg him to keep it and use it at the forthcoming trial. It would be impossible for her to accept such a sacrifice of his rights. In the meantime she could assure him that she would always be sorry for the way in which she had misjudged him.
The young woman called for her horse again and rode to Corbett's, which was the nearest post-office. In the envelope with her letter was also the one of her grandfather marked "Exhibit A." She, too, carefully registered the contents before mailing.
As she stood on the porch drawing up her gauntlets a young man cantered into sight. He wore puttees, riding breeches, and a neat corduroy coat. One glance told her it was Manuel. No other rider in the valley had quite the same easy seat in the saddle as the young Spaniard. He drew up sharply in front of Valencia and landed lightly on his feet beside her.
"Buenos, cousin." Her shining eyes went eagerly to his. "Manuel, what do you think Mr. Gordon has done?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "How can I guess? That mad American might do anything but show the white feather."
In four sentences she told him.
Manuel clapped his hands in approval. "Bravo! Done like a man. He is at least neither a spy nor a thief."
Valencia smiled with pleasure. Manuel, too, had come out of the test with flying colors. He and Gordon were foes, but he accepted at face value what the latter had done, without any sneers or any sign of jealousy.
"And what shall I do with the letter?" his cousin asked.
"Do with it? Put it in the first fire you see. Shall I lend you a match?"
She shook her head, still with the gleam of a smile on her vivid face. "Too late, Manuel. I have disposed of the dangerous evidence."
"So? Good. You took my advice before I gave it, then."
"Not quite. I couldn't be less generous than our enemy. So I have sent the letter back to him and told him to use it."
The young man gave her his best bow. "Magnificent, but not war. I might have trusted the daughter of Don Alvaro to do a thing so royal. My cousin, I am proud of you."
"What else could I have done and held my self-respect? I had insulted him gratuitously and my people had tried to kill him. The least I could do now was to meet him in a spirit like his own."
"Honors are easy. Let us see what Mr. Gordon will now do."
The sound of a light footfall came to them. A timid voice broke into their conversation.
"May I see Dona Valencia—alone—for just a minute?"
Miss Valdes turned. A girl was standing shyly in the doorway. Her soft brown eyes begged pardon for the intrusion.
"You are Juanita, are you not?" the young woman asked.
Pesquiera eliminated himself by going in to get his mail.
"What is it that I can do for you?" asked Valencia.
The Mexican girl broke into an emotional storm. She caught one of her hands in the brown palm of the other with a little gesture of despair.