"They have gone to kill him. Dona. I know it. Something tells me. He will never come back alive." The feeling she had repressed was finding vent in long, irregular sobs.
Valencia felt as if she were being drowned in icy water. The color washed from her cheeks. She had no need to ask who it was that would never come back alive, but she did.
"Who, child? Whom is it that they have gone to kill?"
"The American—Senor Gordon."
"Who has gone? And when did they go? Tell me quick."
"Sebastian and Pablo—maybe others—I do not know."
Miss Valdes thought quickly. It might be true. Both the men mentioned had asked for a holiday to go to Santa Fe. What business had they there at this time of the year? Could it be Pablo who had shot at Gordon from ambush? If so, why was he so bitter against the common enemy?
"Juanita, tell me everything. What is it that you know?"
The sobs of the girl increased. She leaned against the door jamb and buried her face in the crook of her arm.
The older girl put an arm around the quivering shoulders and spoke gently. "But listen, child. Tell me all. It may be we can save him yet."
A name came from the muffled lips. It was "Pablo."
Valencia's brain was lit by a flash of understanding. "Pablo is your lover. Is it not so, nina?"
The dark crown of soft hair moved up and down in assent. "Oh, Dona, he was, but—"
"You have quarreled with him?"
Miss Valdes burned with impatience, but some instinct told her she could not hurry the girl.
"Si, Senorita. He quarreled. He said—"
"——that ... that Senor Gordon ..."
Again, groping for the truth, Valencia found it swiftly.
"You mean that Pablo was jealous?"
"Because I had nursed Senor Gordon, because he was kind to me, because——" Juanita had lifted her face to answer. As she spoke the color poured into her cheeks even to her throat, convicting evidence of the cruel embarrassment she felt.
Valencia's hand dropped to her side. When she spoke again the warmth had been banished from her voice. "I see. You nursed Mr. Gordon, did you?"
Juanita's eyes fell before the cold accusation in those of Miss Valdes. "Si, Senorita."
"And he was kind to you? In what way kind?"
The slim Mexican girl, always of the shyest, was bathed in blushes. "He called me ... nina. He ..."
"——made love to you."
A sensation as if the clothes were being torn from her afflicted Juanita. Why did the Dona drag her heart out to look at it? Nor did the girl herself know how much or how little Richard Gordon's gay camaraderie meant. She was of that type of women who love all that are kind to them. No man had ever been so considerate as this handsome curly-headed American. So dumbly her heart went out to him and made the most of his friendliness. Had he not once put his arm around her shoulder and told her to "buck up" when he came upon her crying because of Pedro? Had he not told her she was the prettiest girl in the neighborhood? And had he not said, too, that she was a little angel for nursing him so patiently?
"Dona, I—do—not—know." The words came out as if they were being dragged from her. Poor Juanita would have liked the ground to open up and swallow her.
"Don't you know, you little stupid, that he is playing with you, that he will not marry you?"
"If Dona Valencia says so," murmured the Mexican submissively.
"Men are that way, heartless ... selfish ... vain. But I suppose you led him on," concluded Valencia cruelly.
With a little flare of spirit Juanita looked up. Her courage was for her friend, not for herself.
"Senor Gordon is good. He is kind."
"A lot you know about it, child. Have nothing to do with him. His love can only hurt a girl like you. Go back to your Pablo and forget the American. I will see he does not trouble you again."
Juanita began to cry again. She did not want Senorita Valdes or anybody else interfering between her and the friend she had nursed. But she knew she could not stop this imperative young woman from doing as she pleased.
"Now tell me how you know that Pablo has gone to injure the American. Did he tell you so?"
"Well, what did he say? What is it that you know?" Valencia's shoe tapped the floor impatiently. "Tell me—tell me!"
"He—Pablo—met me at the corral the day he left. I was in the kitchen and he whistled to me." Juanita gave the information sullenly. Why should Senorita Valdes treat her so harshly? She had done no wrong.
"Yes. Go on!"
If she had had the force of character Juanita would have turned on her heel and walked away. But all her life it had been impressed upon her that the will of a Valdes was law to her and her class.
"I do not know ... Pablo told me nothing ... but he laughed at me, oh, so cruelly! He asked if I ... had any messages for my Gringo lover."
"Is that all?"
"All ... except that he would show me what happened to foreign devils who stole my love from him. Oh, Senorita, do you think he will kill the American?"
Valencia, her white lips pressed tightly together, gave no answer. She was thinking.
"I hate Pablo. He is wicked. I will never speak to him again," moaned Juanita helplessly.
Manuel, coming out of the post-office with his mail, looked at the weeping girl incuriously. It was, he happened to know, a habit of the sex to cry over trifles.
Juanita found in a little nod from Miss Valdes permission to leave. She turned and walked hurriedly away to the adobe cabin where she slept. Before she reached it the walk had become a run.
"Has the young woman lost a ribbon or a lover?" commented Pesquiera, with a smile.
"Manuel, I am worried," answered Valencia irrelevantly.
"What about, my cousin?"
"It's this man Gordon again. Juanita says that Pablo and Sebastian have gone to kill him."
"To Santa Fe. They asked for a leave of absence. You know how sullen and suspicious Sebastian is. It is fixed firmly in his head that Mr. Gordon is going to take away his farm."
Manuel's black eyes snapped. He did not propose to let any peons steal from him the punishment he owed this insolent Gordon.
"But Pablo is not a fool. Surely he knows he cannot do such a mad thing."
"Pablo is jealous—and hot-headed." The angry color mounted to the cheeks of the young woman. "He is in love with Juanita and he found out this stranger has been philandering with her. It is abominable. This Gordon has made the silly little fool fall in love with him."
"Oh, if Pablo is jealous——" Pesquiera gave a little shrug of his shoulders. He understood pretty well the temperament of the ignorant Mexican. The young lover was likely to shoot first and think afterward.
Valencia was still thinking of the American. Beneath the olive of her cheeks two angry spots still burned. "I detest that sort of thing. I thought he was a gentleman—and he is only a male flirt ... or worse."
"Perhaps—and perhaps not, my cousin. Did Juanita tell you——?"
"She told me enough. All I need to know."
Again the young man's shoulders lifted in a little gesture of humorous resignation. He knew the uncompromising directness of Miss Valdes and the futility of arguing with her. After all, the character of Gordon was none of his business. The man might have made love to Juanita, though he did not look like that kind of a person. In any case the important thing was to save his life.
After a moment's thought he announced a decision. "I shall take the stage for Santa Fe this afternoon. When I have warned the American I'll round up your man-hunters and bring them back to you."
His lady's face thanked him, though her words did not. "You may tell them I said they were to come back at once."
At her cousin's urgent request Miss Valdes stayed to eat luncheon with him at Corbett's, which was a half-way station for the stage and maintained a public eating-house. Even Valencia hesitated a little at this, though she was at heart an emancipated American girl and not a much-chaperoned Spanish maid. But she wanted to repay him for the service he was undertaking so cheerfully, and therefore sacrificed her scruples.
As they were being served by Juanita the stage rolled up and disgorged its passengers. They poured into the dining-room—a mine-owner and his superintendent, a storekeeper from the village at the other end of the valley, a young woman school-teacher from the Indian reservation, a cattleman, and two Mexican sheepmen.
While the fresh horses were being hitched to the stage Pesquiera and his guest stood back a little apart from the others. Corbett brought out a sack containing mail and handed it to the driver. The passengers found again their places.
Pesquiera shook hands with Valencia. His gaze rested for a moment in her dark eyes.
"Adios, linda," he said, in a low voice.
The color deepened in her cheeks. She understood that he was telling her how very much he was her lover now and always. "Good-bye, amigo," she answered lightly.
Pesquiera took his place on the back seat. The whip of the driver cracked. In a cloud of white dust the stage disappeared around a bend in the road.
Valencia ordered her horse brought, and left for the ranch. Having dispatched Manuel to the scene of action, it might be supposed that she would have awaited the issue without farther activity. But on the way home she began to reflect that her cousin would not reach Santa Fe until next morning, and there was always a chance that this would be too late. As soon as she reached the ranch she called up the station where the stage connected with the train. To the operator she dictated a message to be wired to Richard Gordon. The body of it ran thus:
"Have heard that attack may be made upon your life. Please do not go out alone or at night at all. Answer."
She gave urgent instructions that if necessary to reach Gordon her telegram be sent to every hotel in the city and to his lawyer, Thomas M. Fitt.
Now that she had done all she could the young woman tried to put the matter out of her mind by busying herself with the affairs of the ranch. She had a talk with a cattle buyer, after which she rode out to see the engineer who had charge of the building of the irrigation system she had installed. An answer would, she was sure, be awaiting her upon her return home.
Her anticipation was well founded. One of the housemaids told her that the operator at San Jacinto had twice tried to get her on the telephone. The mistress of the ranch stepped at once to the receiver.
"Give me San Jacinto," she said to the operator.
As soon as she was on the wire with the operator he delivered the message he had for her. It was from Santa Fe and carried the signature of Stephen Davis:
"Gordon has been missing since last night. I fear the worst. For God's sake, tell me what you know."
Valencia leaned against the telephone receiver and steadied herself. She felt strangely faint. The wall opposite danced up and down and the floor swayed like the deck of a vessel in a heavy sea. She set her teeth hard to get a grip on herself. Presently the wave of light-headedness passed.
She moved across the room and sank down into a chair in front of her desk. They had then murdered him after all. She and her people were responsible for his death. There was nothing to be done now—nothing at all.
Then, out of the silence, a voice seemed to call to her—the voice of Richard Gordon, faint and low, but clear. She started to her feet and listened, shaken to the soul by this strange summons from that world which lay beyond the reach of her physical senses. What could it mean? She had the body of a healthy young animal. Her nerves never played her any tricks. But surely there had come to her a call for help not born of her own excited fancy.
In an instant she had made up her mind. Her finger pressed an electric button beside the desk, and almost simultaneously a second one. The maid who appeared in the doorway in answer to the first ring found her mistress busily writing.
Valencia looked up. "Rosario, pack a suitcase for me with clothes for a week. Put in my light brown dress and a couple of shirt-waists. I'll be up presently." Her gaze passed to the major domo who now stood beside the maid. "I'm going to Santa Fe to-night, Fernando. Order the grays to be hitched to the buggy."
"To-night! But, Senorita, the train has gone."
"Juan will go with me. We'll drive right through. My business is important."
"But it is seventy miles to Santa Fe, and part of the way over mountain roads," he protested.
"Yes. We should reach there by morning. I mean to travel all night. Make the arrangements, please, and tell Juan. Then return here. I want to talk over with you the ranch affairs. You will have charge of the ditches, too, during my absence. Don't argue, Fernando, but do as I say."
The old man had opened his mouth to object, but he closed it without voicing his views. A little smile, born of his pride in her wilfulness, touched his lips and wrinkled the parchment skin. Was she not a Valdes? He had served her father and her grandfather. To him, therefore, she could do no wrong.
ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS REWARD
The night of his disappearance Dick had sauntered forth from the hotel with the jaunty assurance to Davis that he was going to call on a young lady. He offered no further details, and his friend asked for none, though he wondered a little what young woman in Santa Fe had induced Gordon to change his habits. The old miner had known him from boyhood. His partner had never found much time for the society of eligible maidens. He had been too busy living to find tea-cup discussions about life interesting. The call of adventure had absorbed his youth, and he had given his few mature years ardently to the great American game of money-making. It was not that he loved gold. What Richard Gordon cared for was the battle, the struggle against both honorable and unscrupulous foe-men for success. He fought in the business world only because it was the test of strength. Money meant power. So he had made money.
It was not until Dick failed to appear for breakfast next morning that Davis began to get uneasy. He sent a bellboy to awaken Gordon, and presently the lad came back with word that he could get no answer to his knocks. Instantly Steve pushed back his chair and walked out of the room to the desk in the lobby.
"Got a skeleton key to Mr. Gordon's room—317, I think it is?" he demanded.
"Yes. We keep duplicate keys. You see, Mr. Davis, guests go away and carry the keys——"
"Then I want it. Afraid something's wrong with my friend. He's always up early and on hand for breakfast. He hasn't showed up this mo'ning. The bell hop can't waken him. I tell you something's wrong."
"Oh, I reckon he'll turn up all right." The clerk turned to the key rack. "Here's the key to Room 317. Mr. Gordon must have left it here. Likely he's gone for a walk."
Davis shook his head obstinately. "Don't believe it. I'm going up to see, anyhow."
Within five minutes he discovered that the bed in Room 317 had not been slept in the previous night. He was thoroughly alarmed. Gordon had no friends in the town likely to put him up for the night. Nor was he the sort of rounder to dissipate his energies in all-night debauchery. Dick had come to Santa Fe for a definite purpose. The old miner knew from long experience that he would not be diverted from it for the sake of the futile foolish diversions known by some as pleasure. Therefore the mind of Davis jumped at once to the conclusion of foul play.
And if foul play, then the Valdes claimants to the Rio Chamo Valley were the guilty parties. He blamed himself bitterly for having let Dick venture out alone, for having taken no precautions whatever to guard him against the Mexicans who had already once attempted his life.
"I'm a fine friend. Didn't even find out who he was going out to call on. Fact is, I didn't figure he was in any danger so long as he was in town here," he explained to the sheriff.
He learned nothing either at the police headquarters or at the newspaper offices that threw light on the disappearance of Gordon. No murder had been reported during the night. No unusual disturbance of any kind had occurred, so far as could be learned.
Before noon he had the town plastered with posters in English and in Spanish offering a reward of five hundred dollars for news leading to the recovery of Richard Gordon or for evidence leading to the conviction of his murderers in case he was dead. This brought two callers to the hotel almost at once. One was the attorney Fitt, the other a young woman who gave her name as Kate Underwood. Fitt used an hour of the old miner's time to no purpose, but the young woman brought with her one piece of news.
"I want to know when Mr. Gordon was last seen," she explained, "because he was calling on my mother and me last night and left about ten o'clock."
The little man got to his feet in great excitement. "My dear young woman, you're the very person I've been wanting to see. He told me he was going calling, but I'm such a darned chump I didn't think to ask where. Is Dick a friend of your family?"
"No, hardly that. I met him when he came to our office in the State House to look up the land grant papers. We became friendly and I asked him to call because we own the old Valdes house, and I thought he would like to see it." She added, rather dryly: "You haven't answered my question."
"I'll say that so far as I know you are the last person who ever saw Dick alive except his murderers," Davis replied, a gleam of tears in his eyes.
"Oh, it can't be as bad as that," she cried. "They wouldn't go that far."
"Wouldn't they? He was shot at from ambush while we were out riding one day in the Chama Valley."
"By a young Mexican—one of Miss Valdes servants."
"You don't mean that Valencia——?"
She stopped, unwilling to put her horrified thought into words. He answered her meaning.
"No, I reckon not. She wanted Dick to tell her who it was, so she could punish the man. But that doesn't alter the facts any. He was shot at. That time the murderer missed, but maybe this time——"
Miss Underwood broke in sharply. "Do you know that he has been followed ever since he came to town, that men have dogged his steps everywhere?"
Davis leaned across the table where he was sitting. "How do you know?" he questioned eagerly.
"I saw them and warned him. He laughed about it and said he knew already. He didn't seem at all worried."
"Worried! He's just kid enough to be tickled to death about it," snapped the miner, masking his anxiety with irritation. "He hadn't sense enough to tell me for fear it would disturb me—and I hadn't the sense to find out in several days what you did in five minutes."
Davis and Miss Underwood went together over every foot of the road between her home and the hotel. One ray of hope they got from their examination of the ground he must have traversed to reach the El Tovar, as the hotel was named. At one spot—where a double row of cottonwoods lined the road—a fence had been knocked down and many feet had trampled the sandy pasture within. Steve picked up a torn piece of cloth about six inches by twelve in dimension. It had evidently been a part of a coat sleeve. He recognized the pattern as that of the suit his friend had been wearing.
"A part of his coat all right," he said. "They must have bushwhacked him here. By the foot-prints there were a good many of them."
"I'm glad there were."
"For two reasons," the girl explained. "In the first place, if they had wanted to kill him, one or two would have been enough. They wouldn't take any more than was necessary into their confidence."
"That's right. Your head's level there."
"And, in the second place, two men can keep a secret, but six or eight can't. Some one of them is bound to talk to his sweetheart or wife or friend."
"True enough. That five hundred dollars might get one of 'em, too."
"Somehow I believe he is alive. His enemies have taken him away somewhere—probably up into the hills."
"You ought to know that better than I do. What could they gain by it?"
He scratched his gray head. "Search me. They couldn't aim to hold him till after the trial. That would be a kid's play."
"Couldn't they get him to sign some paper—something saying that he would give up his claim—or that he would sell out cheap?"
"No, they couldn't," the old man answered grimly. "But they might think they could. I expect that's the play. Dick never in the world would come through, though. He's game, that boy is. The point is, what will they do when they find he stands the acid?"
Miss Underwood looked quickly at him, then looked quickly away. She knew what they would do. So did Davis.
"No, that's not the point. We must find him—just as soon as we can. Stir this whole town up and rake it with a fine-tooth comb. See if any of Miss Valdes' peons are in town. If they are have them shadowed."
They separated presently, she to go to the State House, he to return to the El Tovar. There he found the telegram from Miss Valdes awaiting him. Immediately he dictated an answer.
Before nightfall a second supply of posters decorated walls and billboards. The reward was raised to one thousand dollars for information that would lead to the finding of Richard Gordon alive and the same sum for evidence sufficient to convict his murderers in case he was dead. It seemed impossible that in so small a place, with everybody discussing the mysterious disappearance, the affair could long remain a secret. Davis did not doubt that Miss Underwood was correct in her assumption that the assailants of Gordon had carried him with them into some hidden pocket of the hills, in which case it might take longer to run them to earth. The great danger that he feared was panic on the part of the abductors. To cover their tracks they might kill him and leave this part of the country. The closer pursuit pressed on them the more likely this was to happen. It behooved him to move with the greatest care.
VALENCIA MAKES A PROMISE
When Manuel descended from the El Tovar hack which had brought him from the station to that hotel the first person he saw standing upon the porch was Valencia Valdes. He could hardly believe his eyes, for of course she could not be here. He had left her at Corbett's, had taken the stage and the train, and now found her waiting for him. The thing was manifestly impossible. Yet here she was.
Swiftly she came down the steps to meet him.
"Manuel, we are too late. Mr. Gordon has gone."
"Gone where?" he asked, his mind dazed as it moved from one puzzle to another.
"We don't know. He was attacked night before last and carried away, whether dead or alive we have no proof."
"One thing at a time, Valencia. How did you get here?"
"I drove across the mountains—started when I got the news from Mr. Davis that his friend had disappeared."
"Do you mean that you drove all night—along mountain roads?" he asked, amazed.
"Of course. I had to get here." She dismissed this as a trifle with a little gesture of her hand. "Manuel, we must find him. I believe he is alive. This is some of Pablo's work. Down in old-town some one must know where he is. Bring him to me and I'll make him tell what he has done with Mr. Gordon."
Pesquiera was healthily hungry. He would have liked to sit down to a good breakfast, but he saw that his cousin was laboring under a heavy nervous tension. Cheerfully he gave up his breakfast for the present.
But when, three hours later, he returned from the old adobe Mexican quarter Manuel had nothing to report but failure. Pablo had been seen by several people, but not within the past twenty-four hours. Nor had anything been seen of Sebastian. The two men had disappeared from sight as completely as had Gordon.
Valencia, in the privacy of one of the hotel parlors, broke down and wept for the first time. Manuel tried to comfort her by taking the girl in his arms and petting her. She submitted to his embrace, burying her face in his shoulder.
"Oh, Manuel, I'm a—a murderess," she sobbed.
"You're a goose," he corrected. "Haven't you from the first tried to save this man from his own rashness? You're not to blame in any way, Val."
"Yes ... Yes," she sobbed. "Pablo and Sebastian would never have dared touch him if they hadn't known that I'd quarreled with him. It all comes back to that."
"That's pure nonsense. For that matter, I don't believe he's dead at all. We'll find him, as gay and insolent as ever, I promise you."
Hope was buoyant in the young man's heart. For the first time he held his sweetheart in his arms. She clung to him, as a woman ought to her lover, palpitant, warm, and helpless. Of course they would find this pestiferous American who had caused her so much worry. And then he—Manuel—would claim his reward.
"Do you think so ... really? You're not just saying so because ...?" Her olive cheek turned the least in the world toward him.
Manuel trod on air. He felt that he could have flown across the range on the wings of his joy.
"I feel sure of it, nina." Daring much, his hand caressed gently the waves of heavy black hair that brushed his cheek.
Almost in a murmur she answered him. "Manuel, find him and save him. Afterward ..."
"Afterward, alma mia?"
She nodded. "I'll ... do what you ask."
"You will marry me?" he cried, afraid to believe that his happiness had come at last.
"Valencia, you love me?"
She trod down any doubts she might feel. Was he not the one suitable mate for her of all the men she knew?
"How can I help it. You are good. You are generous. You serve me truly." Gently she disengaged herself and wiped her eyes with a lace kerchief. "But we must first find the American."
"I'll find him. Dead or alive I'll bring him to you. Dear heart, you've given me the strength that moves mountains."
A little smile fought for life upon her sad face. "You'll not have strength unless you eat. Poor Manuel, I think you lost your breakfast. I ordered luncheon to be ready for us early. We'll eat now."
A remark of Manuel during luncheon gave his vis-a-vis an idea.
"Mr. Davis is most certainly thorough. I never saw a town so plastered with bills before," he remarked.
Valencia laid down her knife and fork as she looked at him. "Let's offer a reward for Pablo and Sebastian—say, a hundred dollars. That would bring us news of them."
"You're right," he agreed. "I'll get bills out this afternoon. Perhaps I'd better say no incriminating questions will be asked of those giving us information."
Stirred to activity by the promise of such large rewards, not only the sheriff's office and the police, but also private parties scoured the neighboring country for traces of the missing man or his captors. Every available horse in town was called into service for the man-hunt. Others became sleuths on foot and searched cellars and empty houses for the body of the man supposed to have been murdered. Never in its history had so much suspicion among neighbors developed in the old-town. Many who could not possibly be connected with the crime were watched jealously lest they snap up one of the rewards by stumbling upon evidence that had been overlooked.
False clews in abundance were brought to Davis and Pesquiera. Good citizens came in with theories that lacked entirely the backing of any evidence. One of these was that a flying machine had descended in the darkness and that Gordon had been carried away by a friend to avoid the payment of debts he was alleged to owe. The author of this explanation was a stout old lady of militant appearance who carried a cotton umbrella large enough to cover a family. She was extraordinarily persistent and left in great indignation to see a lawyer because Davis would not pay her the reward.
That day and the next passed with the mystery still unsolved. Valencia continued to stay at the hotel instead of opening the family town house, probably because she had brought no servants with her from the valley and did not know how long she would remain in the city. She and Manuel called upon the Underwoods to hear Kate's story, but from it they gathered nothing new. Mrs. Underwood welcomed them with the gentle kindness that characterized her, but Kate was formal and distant.
"She doesn't like me," Valencia told her cousin as soon as they had left. "I wonder why. We were good enough friends as children."
Manuel said nothing. He stroked his little black mustache with the foreign manner he had inherited. If he had cared to do so perhaps he could have explained Kate Underwood's stiffness. Partly it was embarrassment and partly shyness. He knew that there had been a time—before Valencia's return from college—when Kate lacked very little of being in love with him. He had but to say the word to have become engaged—and he had not said it. For, while on a visit to the East, he had called upon his beautiful cousin and she had won his love at once. This had nipped in the bud any embryonic romance that might otherwise have been possible with Kate.
A little old Mexican woman with a face like wrinkled leather was waiting to see them in front of the hotel.
"Senor Pesquiera?" she asked, with a little bob of the body meant to be a bow.
"And Senorita Valdes?"
"That is my name," answered Valencia.
"Will the senor and the senorita take a walk? The night is fine."
"Where?" demanded Manuel curtly.
"Into old-town, senor."
"You have something to tell us."
"To show you, senor—for a hundred dollars."
"Sebastian—or is it Pablo?" cried Valencia, in a low voice.
"I say nothing, senorita" whined the old woman. "I show you; then you pay. Is it not so?"
"Get the money, Manuel," his cousin ordered quietly.
Manuel got it from the hotel safe. He took time also to get from his room a revolver. Gordon had fallen victim to an ambush and he did not intend to do so if he could help it. In his own mind he had no doubt that some of their countrymen were selling either Pablo or Sebastian for the reward, but it was better to be safe than to be sorry.
The old crone led them by side streets into the narrow adobe-lined roads of old-town. They passed through winding alleys and between buildings crumbling with age. Always Manuel watched, his right hand in his coat pocket. At the entrance to a little court a man emerged from the shadow of a wall. He whispered with the old dame for a minute.
"Come. Make an end of this and show us what you have to show, muy pronto," interrupted Manuel impatiently.
"In good time, senor," the man apologized.
"Just a word first, my friend. I have a revolver in my hand. If there is trickery in your mind, better give it up. I'm a dead shot, and I'll put the first bullet through your heart. Now lead on."
The Mexican threw up his hands in protest to all the saints that his purpose was good. He would assuredly keep faith, senor.
"See you do," replied the Spaniard curtly.
Their guide rapped three times on a door of a tumble-down shack. Cautiously it was opened a few inches. There was another whispered conversation.
"The senor and the senorita can come in," said the first man, standing aside.
Manuel restrained the young woman by stretching his left arm in front of her.
"Just a moment. Light a lamp, my friends. We do not go forward in the dark."
At this there was a further demur, but finally a match flickered and a lamp was lit. Manuel moved slowly forward into the room, followed by Valencia. In a corner of the room a man lay bound upon the floor, his back toward them. One of the men rolled him over as if he had been a sack of potatoes. The face into which they looked had been mauled and battered, but Valencia had no trouble in recognizing it.
"Sebastian!" she cried.
He said nothing. A sullen, dogged look rested on his face. Manuel had seen it before on the countenance of many men. He knew that the sheep grazer could not be driven to talk.
Miss Valdes might have known it, too, but she was too impatient for finesse. "What have you done with Mr. Gordon? Tell me—now—at once," she commanded.
The man's eyes did not lift to meet hers. Nor did he answer a single word.
"First, our hundred dollars, Senorita," one of the men reminded her.
"It will be paid when you deliver Sebastian to us in the street with his hands tied behind him," Manuel promised.
They protested, grumbling that they had risked enough already when they had captured him an hour earlier. But in the end they came to Pesquiera's condition. The prisoner's hands were tied behind him and his feet released so that he could walk. Manuel slid one arm under the right one of Sebastian. The fingers of his left hand rested on the handle of a revolver in his coat pocket.
Valencia, all impatience, could hardly restrain herself until they were alone with their prisoner. She walked on the other side of her cousin, but as soon as they reached the Plaza she stopped.
"Where is he, Sebastian? What have you done with him? I warn you it is better to tell all you know," she cried sternly.
He looked up at her doggedly, moistened his lips, and looked down again without a word.
"Speak!" she urged imperiously. "Where is Mr. Gordon? Tell me he is alive. And what of Pablo?"
Manuel spoke in a low voice. "My cousin, you are driving him to silence. Leave him to me. He must be led, not driven."
Valencia was beyond reason. She felt that every minute lost was of tremendous importance. If Gordon was alive they must get help to him at once. All her life she had known Sebastian. When she had been a little tot he had taught her how to ride and how to fish. Since her return from college she had renewed acquaintance with him. Had she not been good to his children when they had small-pox? Had she not sold him his place cheaper than any other man could have bought it? Why, then, should he assume she was his enemy? Why should he distrust her? Why, above all, had he done this foolish and criminal thing?
Her anger blazed as she recalled all this and more. She would show Sebastian that because she had been indulgent he could not trade defiantly upon her kindness.
"No," she told Manuel. "No. I shall deal with him myself. He will speak or I shall turn him over to the sheriff."
"Let us at least go to the hotel, Valencia. We do not want to gather a crowd on the street."
"As you please."
They reached the hotel parlor and Valencia gave Sebastian one more chance.
The man shuffled uneasily on his feet, but did not answer.
"Very well," continued Miss Valdes stiffly, "it is not my fault that you will have to go to the penitentiary and leave your children without support."
Manuel tried to stop her, but Valencia brushed past and left the room. She went straight to a telephone and was connected with the office of the sheriff. After asking that an officer be sent at once to arrest a man whom she was holding as prisoner, she hung up the receiver and returned to the parlor.
In all she could not have been absent more than five minutes, but when she reached the parlor it was empty. Both Manuel and his prisoner had gone.
AN OBSTINATE MAN
When Richard Gordon came back from unconsciousness to a world of haziness and headaches he was quite at a loss to account for his situation. He knew vaguely that he was lying flat on his back and that he was being jolted uncomfortably to and fro. His dazed brain registered sensations of pain both dull and sharp from a score of bruised nerve centers. For some reason he could neither move his hands nor lift his head. His body had been so badly jarred by the hail of blows through which he had plowed that at first his mind was too blank to give him explanations.
Gradually he recalled that he had been in a fight. He remembered a sea of faces, the thud of fists, the flash of knives. This must be the reason why every bone ached, why the flesh on his face was caked and warm moisture dripped from cuts in his scalp. It dawned upon him that he could not move his arms because they were tied and that the interference with his breathing was caused by a gag. When he opened his eyes he saw nothing, but whenever his face or hands stirred from the jolting something light and rough brushed his flesh; An odor of alfalfa filled his nostrils. He guessed that he was in a wagon and covered with hay.
Where were they taking him? Why had they not killed him at once? Who was at the bottom of the attack upon him? Already his mind was busy with the problem.
Presently the jolting ceased. He could hear guarded voices. The alfalfa was thrown aside and he was dragged from his place and carried down some steps. The men went stumbling through the dark, turning first to the right, and then to the left. They groped their way into a room and dropped him upon a bed. Even now they struck no light, but through a small window near the ceiling moonbeams entered and relieved somewhat the inky blackness.
"Is he dead?" someone asked in Spanish.
"No. His eyes were open as we brought him in," answered a second voice guardedly.
They stood beside the bed and looked down at their prisoner. His eyes were getting accustomed to the darkness. He saw that one of the men was Pablo Menendez. The other, an older Mexican with short whiskers, was unknown to him.
"He fought like a devil from hell. Roderigo's arm is broken. Not one of us but is marked," said the older man admiringly.
"My head is ringing yet, Sebastian," agreed Pablo. "Dios, how he slammed poor Jose down. The blood poured from his nose and mouth. Never yet have I seen a man fight so fierce and so hard as this Americano. He may be the devil himself, but his claws are clipped now. And here he lies till he does as we want, or——" The young Mexican did not finish his sentence, but the gleam in his eyes was significant.
Pablo stooped till his eyes were close to those of the bound man. "Senor, shall I take the gag from your mouth? Will you swear not to cry out and not to make any noise?"
"So, but if you do the road to Paradise will be short and swift," continued Menendez. "Before your shout has died away you will be dead. Sabe, Senor?"
He unknotted the towel at the back of his prisoner's head and drew it from Dick's mouth. Gordon expanded his lungs in a deep breath before he spoke coolly to his gaoler.
"Thank you, Menendez. You needn't keep your fist on that gat. I've no intention of committing suicide until after I see you hanged."
"Which will be never, Senor Gordon," replied Pablo rapidly in Spanish. "You will never leave here alive except on terms laid down by us."
"Interesting if true—but not true, I think," commented Dick pleasantly. "You have made a mistake, my friends, and you will have to pay for it."
"If we have made a mistake it can yet be remedied, Senor" retorted Pablo quietly. "We have but to make an end of you and behold! all is well again."
"Afraid not, my enthusiastic young friend. Too many in the secret. Someone will squeal, and the rest of you—particularly you two ringleaders—will be hanged by the neck. It takes only ordinary intelligence to know that. Therefore I am quite safe, even though I have a confounded headache and a rising fever." Gordon added with cheerful solicitude: "I do hope I'm not going to get sick on your hands. It's rather a habit of mine, you know. But, really, you can't blame me this time."
A danger signal flared in the eyes of the young Mexican. "Better not, Senor. You will here have no young and charming nurse to wait upon you."
"Meaning Mrs. Corbett?" asked the prisoner, smiling up impudently.
"Whose heart your soft words can steal away from him to whom it belongs," continued Pablo furiously.
"Sho, I reckon Corbett——"
A devil of jealousy was burning out of the black eyes that blazed into those of the American. It was no longer possible for Dick to miss the menace and its meaning. The Mexican was speaking of Juanita. He believed that his prisoner had been making love to the girl and his heart was black with hate because of it.
Gordon looked at him steadily, then summed up with three derisive words. "You damn fool!"
Something in the way he said them shook Pablo's conviction. Was it possible after all that his jealousy had been useless? Juanita had told him that all through his delirium this man had raved of Miss Valdes. Perhaps—— But, no, had he not with his own eyes seen the man bantering Juanita while the color came and went in her wild rose cheeks? Had he not seen him lean on her shoulder as he hobbled out to the porch, just as a lover might on that of his sweetheart?
With an oath Pablo turned sullenly away. He knew he was no match for this man at any point. Yet he was a leader among his own people because of the force in him.
Gordon slept little during the night. He had been so badly beaten that outraged nature took her revenge in a feverish restlessness that precluded any real rest. With the coming of day the temperature subsided. Pablo brought a basin of water and a sponge, with which he washed the bloody face and head of the bound man.
Dick observed that his nurse had a few marks of his own as souvenirs of the battle. The cheek bone had been laid open by a blow that must have been made with his knuckles. One eye was half shut, and beneath it was a deep purple swelling.
"Had quite a little jamboree, didn't we?" remarked Gordon, with a grin. "I'll bet you lads mussed my hair up some."
Pablo said nothing, but after he had made his unwilling guest as presentable and comfortable as possible he proceeded to business.
"You want to know why we have made you prisoner, Senor Gordon?" he suggested. "It has perhaps occur to you that it would have been much easier to shoot you and be done?"
"Yes, that has struck me, Menendez. I reckon your nerve didn't quite run to murder maybe."
"Not so. I spare you because you save my brother's life after he shoot at you. But I exact conditions. So?"
The eyes of the miner had grown hard and steelly. The lids had closed on them so that only slits were open. "Let's hear them."
"First, that you give what is called word of honor not to push any charges against those taking you prisoner."
"Pass that for the present," ordered Dick curtly. "Number two please."
"That you sign a paper drawn up by a lawyer giving all your rights in the Rio Chama Valley to Senorita Valdes and promise never to go near the valley again."
"Nothing doing," answered the prisoner promptly, his jaws snapping tight.
"But yes—most assuredly yes. I risk much to save your life. But you must go to meet me, Senor. Is a man's life not worth all to him? So? Sign, and you live."
The eyes of the men had fastened—the fierce, black, eager ones of the Mexican and the steelly gray ones of the Anglo-Saxon. There was the rigor of battle in that gaze, the grinding of rapier on rapier. Gordon was a prisoner in the hands of his enemy. He lay exhausted from a terrible beating. That issues of life and death hung in the balance a child might have guessed. But victory lay with the white man. The lids of Menendez fell over sullen, angry eyes.
"You are a fool, Senor. We go to prison for no man who is our enemy. Pouf! When the hour comes I snuff out your life like that." And Pablo snapped his fingers airily.
"Maybe—and maybe not. I figure on living to be an old man. Tell you what I'll do, Menendez. Turn me loose and I'll forget about our little rumpus last night. I'd ought to send you to the pen, but I'll consent to forego that pleasure."
Sulkily Pablo turned away. What could one do with a madman who insisted on throwing his life away? The young Mexican was not a savage, though the barbaric strain in his wild lawless blood was still strong. He did not relish the business of killing in cold blood even the man he hated.
"If you kill me you'll hang," went on Gordon composedly. "You'll never get away with it. Your own friends will swear your neck into a noose. Your partner Sebastian—you'll excuse me if I appear familiar, but I don't know the gentleman's other name—will turn State's evidence to try to save his own neck. But I reckon he'll have to climb the ladder, too."
Sebastian pushed aside his companion angrily and took the American by the throat.
"Por Dios, I show you. If I hang I hang—but you——" His muscular fingers tightened till the face of his enemy grew black. But the eyes—the steady, cool, contemptuous eyes—still looked into his defiantly.
Pablo dragged his accomplice from the bedside. The time might come for this, but it was not yet.
It had been a close thing for Gordon. If those lean, strong fingers had been given a few seconds more at his throat they would have snapped the cord of life. But gradually the distorted face resumed its natural hue as the coughing, strangling man began to breathe again.
"Your—friend—is—impetuous," Dick suggested to Pablo as soon as he could get the words out one at a time.
"He will shake the life out of you as a terrier does that of a rat," Pablo promised vindictively.
"There's no fun—in being strangled, as you'll both—find out later," the prisoner retorted whimsically but with undaunted spirit.
Sebastian had left the room. At the expiration of half an hour he returned with a tray, upon which were two plates with food and two cups of steaming coffee. The Mexicans ate their ham and their frijoles and drank their coffee. The prisoner they ignored.
"Don't I draw even a Libby Prison allowance?" the American wanted to know.
"You eat and you drink after you have signed the paper," Pablo told him.
"I always did think we ate too much and too often. Much obliged for a chance to work out my theories."
Gordon turned his back upon them, his face to the wall. Presently, in spite of the cramped position necessitated by his bound arms, he yielded to weariness and fell asleep. Sebastian lay down in a corner of the room and also slept. He and Pablo would have to relieve each other as watchmen so long as they held their prisoner. For that reason they must get what rest they could during the day.
Menendez found himself the victim of conflicting emotions. It had been easy while they were plotting the abduction to persuade himself that the man would grant anything to save his life. Now he doubted this. Looking clown at the battered face of the miner, so lean and strong and virile, he could not withhold a secret reluctant admiration. How was it possible for him to sleep so easily and lightly while he lay within the shadow of violent death? There was even a little smile about the corners of his mouth, as if he were enjoying pleasant dreams. Never had Pablo known another man like this one. Had he not broken the spirit of that outlaw devil Teddy in ten minutes? Who else could shoot the heads off chickens at a distance as he had done? Was there another in New Mexico that could, though taken at advantage, put up so fierce a fight against big odds? The young Mexican hated him because of Juanita and his opposition to Miss Valdes. But the untamed and gallant spirit of the young man went out in spite of himself in homage to the splendid courage and efficiency of his victim.
Not till the middle of the afternoon did Gordon awaken. He was surprised to find that his hands were free. Of Menendez he asked an explanation.
Pablo gave him none. How could he say that he was ashamed to keep him tied while two armed men were in the room to watch him?
"Move from that bed and I'll blow your brains out," the Mexican growled in Spanish.
Presently Pablo brought him a tin dipper filled with water.
"Drink, Senor" he ordered ungraciously.
Dick drank the last drop and smiled at his guard gratefully. "You're white in spots, Mr. Miscreant, though you hate to think it of yourself," he said lightly.
Odd as it may seem, Gordon found a curious pleasure in exploring the mind of the young man. He detected the struggle going on in it, and he made remarks so uncannily wise that the Mexican was startled at his divination. The miner held no grudge. These men were his enemies because they thought him a selfish villain who ought to be frustrated in his designs. Long ago, in that school of experience which had made him the hard, competent man he was, Dick had learned the truth of the saying that to know all is to forgive all. He himself had done bold and lawless things often enough, but it was seldom that he did a mean one. Warily alert though he was for a chance to escape, his feelings were quite impersonal toward these Mexicans. Confronted with the need, he would kill if he must to save himself; but it would not be because he was vindictive.
Dick's mind was alert to every chance of escape. He studied his situation as well as he could without moving from the bed. From the glimpse of the house he had had as the two men carried him in he knew that it was a large, modern one set in grounds of considerable size. He had been brought down a flight of steps and was now in the basement. Was the house an unoccupied one? Or was it in the possession of some one friendly to the scheme upon which the Mexicans had engaged?
A suspicion had startled him just after the men finished eating, but he had dismissed it as a fantasy of his excited imagination. Sebastian, carrying out the dishes, had dropped a spoon and left it lying beside the bed. Dick contrived, after he had wakened, to roll close to the edge and look down. The spoon was still there. Two letters were engraved upon the handle. They were A.V. If these stood for Alvaro Valdes, then this must be the town house of Valencia, and she was probably a party to his abduction.
He could not without distress of heart accept such a conclusion. She was his enemy, but she had seemed to him so frank and generous a one that complicity in a plot of this nature had no part in the picture of her his mind had drawn. He wrestled with the thought of this until he could stand it no longer.
"Did Miss Valdes come to town herself, or is she letting you run this abduction, Menendez?" he asked suddenly.
Pablo repeated stupidly, "Miss Valdes—the senorita?"
The keen, hard eyes of Gordon did not lift for an instant from those of the other man. "That's what I said."
It occurred to the Mexican that this was a chance to do a stroke of business for his mistress. He would show the confident Americano what place he held in her regard.
His shoulders lifted in a shrug. "You are clevair, Senor. How do you know the senorita knows?"
"This is her house. She told you to bring me here."
Pablo was surprised. "So? You know it is her house?"
"Surest thing you know."
"The senorita trusts me. She is at the ranch."
"But you are acting under her orders?"
"If the senor pleases."
Dick turned his back to the wall again. His heart was bitter within him. He had thought her a sportsman, every inch a thoroughbred. But she had set her peons to spy on him and to attack him—ten to one in their favor—so that she might force him to sign away his rights to her. Very well. He would show her whether she could drive him to surrender, whether she could starve him into doing what he did not want to do.
The younger Mexican wakened Sebastian late in the afternoon and left him to guard the prisoner while he went into the town to hear what rumors were flying about the affair. About an hour later he returned, bringing with him some provisions, a newspaper, and a handbill. The latter he tossed to Gordon.
"Senor, I never saw five hundred dollars dangling within reach before. Shall I go to your friend and give him information?" asked Pablo.
Dick read the poster through with interest. "Good old Steve. He's getting busy. Inside of twenty-four hours he'll ferret out this spot."
"It may be too late," Pablo flung back significantly. "If they press us hard we'll finish the job and make a run for it."
They were talking in Spanish, as they did most of the time. The prisoner read aloud the offer on the handbill.
"Please notice that I'm worth no more alive than you are if I'm dead. I reckon this town is full of friends of yours anxious to earn five hundred plunks by giving a little information. Let me ask a question of you. Suppose you do finish the job and hit the trail. Where would you go?"
"The hills are full of pockets. We could hide and watch a chance to get out of the country."
"We wouldn't have to hide. Jesu Cristo, who would know we did it?" chipped in Sebastian roughly.
"Everybody will know it soon. You made a bad mistake when you didn't bump me off at the start. All your friends that helped bushwhack me will itch to get that five hundred, Sebastian. As to hiding—well, I was a ranger once. Offer a reward, and everybody is on the jump to earn it. The way these hills are being combed this week by anxious man-hunters you'd never reach your cache."
"Maybe we would and maybe we wouldn't. We'll have to take a chance on that," replied the bearded Mexican sullenly.
To their prisoner it was plain that the men were I growing more anxious every hour. They regretted the course they had followed and yet could see no way of safety opening to them. Suspicious by nature, Sebastian judged the American by himself. If their positions were reversed, he knew he would break any pledge he might make and go straight to the sheriff with his story. Therefore they could not with safety release the man. To kill him would be dangerous. To keep him prisoner was possible only for a limited time. Whatever course they followed seemed precarious and uncertain. Temperamentally he was inclined to put an end to the man and try a bolt for the hills, but he found in Pablo an unexpected difficulty. The young man would not hear of this. He had made up his mind riot to let Gordon be killed if he could prevent it, though he did not tell the American so.
Menendez made another trip after supplies next day, but he came back hurriedly without them. Pesquiera's poster offering a reward of one hundred dollars for the capture of him or Sebastian had brought him up short and sent him scurrying back to his hole.
Gordon used the poster for a text. His heart was jubilant within him, for he knew now that Valencia was not back of this attack upon him.
"All up with you now," he assured them in a genial, offhand fashion. "Miss Valdes must be backing Pesquiera. They know you two are the guilty villains. Inside of twelve hours they'll have you both hogtied."
Clearly the conspirators were of that opinion themselves. They talked together a good deal in whispers. Dick was of the opinion that a proposition would be made him before morning, though it was just possible that the scale might tip the other way and his death be voted. He spent a very anxious hour.
After dark Sebastian, who was less well known in the town than Pablo, departed on an errand unknown to Gordon. The miner guessed that he was going to make arrangements for horses upon which to escape. Dick was not told their decision. Menendez had fallen sulky again and refused to talk.
Valencia had scarcely left the parlor to telephone for the sheriff before Manuel flashed a knife and cut the rope that tied his prisoner's hands.
Sebastian had shrunk back at sight of the knife, but when he found that he was free he stared at Pesquiera in startled amazement.
"Come! Let's get out of here. We can talk when you are free of danger," said Manuel with sharp authority in his voice.
He led the way into the corridor, walked quickly down one passage and along another, and so by a back stairway into the alley in the rear. Within a few minutes they were a quarter of a mile from the El Tovar.
Sebastian, still suspicious, yet aware that for some reason Don Manuel was unexpectedly on his side, awaited explanations.
"Dona Valdes is quite right, Sebastian. She means well, but she is, after all, a woman. This is a man's business, and you and I can settle it better alone." Manuel smiled with an air of frank confidence at his former prisoner. "You are in a serious fix—no doubt at all about that. The question is to find the best way out."
Pesquiera's bright black eyes fastened on him as he flung a question at the man. "I suppose this Gordon is still alive."
Sebastian nodded gloomily. "He is like a cat with its nine lives. We have beaten and starved him, but he laughs—this Gringo devil—and tells us he will live to see us wearing stripes in prison."
"Muy bien." Manuel talked on briskly, so as to give the slower-witted Mexican no time to get set in obstinacy. "I should be able to arrange matters then. We must free the man after I have his word to tell nothing."
"But he will run straight to the sheriff," protested Sebastian.
"Not if he gives his word. I'll see to that. Where have you him hidden?" The young Spaniard asked the question carelessly, almost indifferently, as if it were merely a matter of course.
Sebastian opened his mouth to tell—and then closed it. He had had no intention of telling anything. Now he found he had told everything except their hiding-place. The suspicion which lay coiled in his heart lifted its head like a snake. Was he being led into a trap? Would Don Manuel betray him to the law? The gleaming eyes of the man narrowed and grew hard.
Manuel, intuitively sensing this, hurried on. "It can be a matter of only hours now until they stumble upon your hiding-place. If this happens before we have come to terms with Gordon you are lost. I have come to town to save you and Pablo. But I can't do this unless you trust me. Take me to Gordon and let me talk with him. Blindfold me if you like. But lose no time."
As Sebastian saw it, this was a chance. He knew Manuel was an honest man. His reputation was of the best. Reluctantly he gave way.
"The Americano is at the Valdes house," he admitted sulkily.
"At the Valdes house? Why, in Heaven's name, did you take him there?"
"How could we tell that the Senorita would come to town? The house was empty. Pablo worked there in the stables as a boy. So we moved in."
A quarter of an hour later Pablo opened the outer basement door in answer to the signal agreed upon by them. He had left the prisoner upon the bed with his hands tied. Sebastian entered. Pablo noticed that another man was standing outside. Instantly his rifle covered him. For, though others of their countrymen had been employed to help capture Gordon, none of these knew where he was hidden.
"It is Don Manuel Pesquiera," explained Sebastian. "I brought him here to help us out of this trouble we are in. Let him in and I will tell you all."
For an instant Pablo suspected that his accomplice had sold him, but he dismissed the thought almost at once. He had known Sebastian all his life. He stepped aside and let Pesquiera come into the hall.
The three men talked for a few minutes and then passed into the bedroom where the prisoner was confined. Evidently this had formerly been the apartment of the cook, who had slept in the basement in order no doubt to be nearer her work. Pesquiera looked around and at last made out a figure in the darkness lying upon the bed.
He stepped forward, observing that the man on the bed had his hands bound. Bending down, he recognized the face of Gordon. Beaten and bruised and gaunt from hunger it was, but the eyes still gleamed with the same devil-may-care smile.
"Happy to meet you, Don Manuel."
The Spaniard's heart glowed with admiration. He did not like the man. It was his intention to fight him as soon as possible for the insult that had been put upon him some weeks earlier. But his spirit always answered to the call of courage, and Gordon's pluck was so debonair he could not refuse a reluctant appreciation.
"I regret to see you thus, Mr. Gordon," he said.
"Might have been worse. Sebastian has had se-vere-al notions about putting me out of business. I'm lucky to be still kicking."
"I have come from Miss Valdes. She came to Santa Fe when she heard from your friend Mr. Davis that you had disappeared. To-night we saw Sebastian for the first time. He brought me here."
"Good of him," commented Dick ironically.
"You will be freed of course—at once." Manuel drew out his knife and cut the cords that bound the prisoner. "But I must ask your forbearance in behalf of Sebastian and Pablo and the others that have injured you. May I give them your pledge not to appear as a witness against them for what they have done?"
"Fine! I'm to be mauled and starved and kidnaped, but I'm to say 'Thank you kindly' for these small favors, hoping for a continuance of the same. You have another guess coming, Mr. Pesquiera. I offered those terms two days ago. They weren't accepted. My ideas have changed. I'm going to put your friends behind the bars—unless you decide to let them murder me instead. I've been the goat long enough."
"Your complaint is just, Mr. Gordon. It iss your right to enforce the law. Most certainly it iss your right. But consider my position. Sebastian brought me here only upon my pledge to secure from you a promise not to press your rights. What shall I do? I must see that you are released. That goes without saying. But shall I break faith with him and let him be delivered to justice? I have given my word, remember."
Gordon looked up at him with his lean jaw set. "You couldn't give my word, could you? Very well. Go away. Forget that you've seen me. I'll be a clam so far as you are concerned. But if I get free I'm going to make things hot for these lads that think they can play Ned with me. They're going to the pen, every last one of them. I'm going to see this thing out to a finish and find out if there's any law in New Mexico."
Manuel stiffened. "You put me in an awkward position, Mr. Gordon. I have no choice but to see you are set at liberty. But my honor is involved. These men shall not go to prison. They have made a serious mistake, but they are not what you call criminals. You know well——"
"I know that they and their friends have shot at me, ambushed me, beaten me, and starved me. They've been wanting to kill me ever since they got me here—at least one of them has—but they just didn't have the guts to do it. What is your definition of a criminal anyhow? Your friends here fill the specifications close enough to suit me. I ain't worried about their being too good for the company they'll join at the pen."
"You are then resolve', Senor?"
"That's what I am. I'm going to see they get the limit. I've not got a thing against you, Mr. Pesquiera, and I'd like to oblige you if I could. But I'm playing this hand myself."
The Spaniard spoke to him in a low voice. "These men are the people of Miss Valdes. She drove all night across the mountains to get here sooner when she found you were gone. She offered and paid a reward of one hundred dollars to help find you. Do you not owe something to her?"
"I owe one hundred dollars and my thanks, sir. I'll pay them both. But Miss Valdes cannot ask me to give up prosecuting these men because she would not stand back and see murder done."
"Will you then leave it to her to punish these men?"
"No. I pay my own debts."
Manuel was troubled. He had expected to find the prisoner so eager for release that he would consent at once to his proposal. Instead, he found a man hard and cold as steel. Yet he had to admit that Gordon claimed only his rights. No man could be expected to stand without an appeal to the law such outrageous treatment as he had been given.
"Will you consent then to settle the matter with me, man to man? These men are but peons. They are like cattle and do not think. But I—I am a more worthy foeman. Let me take the burden of their misdeeds on my shoulders."
Dick wagged a forefinger at him warningly. "Now you've got that swashbuckler notion of a duel again. I'm no cavalier of Spain, but a plain American business man, Don Quixote. As for these jail-birds"—his hand swept the room to include the Mexicans—"since I'm an unregenerate human I mean to make 'em pay for what they've done. That's all there is to it."
Don Manuel bowed. "Very good, Mr. Gordon. We shall see. I promise you that I shall stand between them and prison. I offer you a chance to win the friendship of the Mexicans in the valley. You decline. So be it. I wash my hands, sir."
He turned away and gave directions to Pablo, who left the room at once. The Spaniard called for candles and lit two. He pointedly ignored Gordon, but sat with his hands in his pockets whistling softly a popular air.
About a quarter of an hour later Pablo returned with a hot meal on a tray. Gordon, having done without food for two days, ate his ham and eggs and drank his coffee with an appetite given to few men. Meanwhile Pesquiera withdrew to the passage and laid down an ultimatum to the Mexicans. They must take horse at once and get back to the hills above the Rio Chama Valley. He would bring saddle horses from a stable so that they could start within the hour and travel all night.
The Mexicans listened sullenly. But they knew that the matter was now out of their hands. Since the arrival of Pesquiera it had become manifestly impossible to hold their prisoner longer. They agreed to the plan of the Spaniard reluctantly.
After Pablo and Sebastian had taken horse Pesquiera returned to the prisoner.
"We will, if it pleases you, move upstairs, Mr. Gordon," he announced. "To-night I must ask you to remain in the house with me to give those poor fools a little start on their ride for freedom. We shall find better beds upstairs no doubt."
"They're hitting the trail, are they?" Dick asked negligently as he followed his guide.
"Yes. If you'll give me your parole till morning, Mr. Gordon, I shall be able to return to Miss Valdes and let her know that all is well. Otherwise I shall be obliged to sit up and see that you do not get active in interfering with the ride of Pablo and his friend."
"I'll stay here till seven o'clock to-morrow morning. Is that late enough? Then I'll see the sheriff and start things moving."
Pesquiera bowed in his grand, formal manner. "The terms satisfy. I wish Mr. Gordon a very good night's sleep. This room formerly belonged to the brother of Miss Valdes. It is curious, but she was here airing this room only to-day. She did not know you were in the house at the time. Adios, Senor."
"Good night, Mr. Pesquiera. I reckon I'm in your debt quite a bit. Sorry we couldn't agree about this little matter of what to do with the boys."
Manuel bowed again and withdrew from the room.
Inside of ten minutes Gordon was fast asleep.
VALENCIA ACCEPTS A RING
Manuel found Valencia pacing up and down the porch of the hotel in a fever of impatience. Instantly at sight of him she ran forward quickly.
"Where have you been? What have you done with Sebastian? Why did you leave without telling me about it?" she demanded.
"One question at a time, my cousin," he answered, smiling at her. "But let us walk while I tell you."
She fell into step beside him, moving with the strong, lissom tread that came from controlled and deliberate power.
"What is it you have to tell? If you were called away, why did you not leave a message for me?" she asked, a little imperiously.
"I wasn't called away, Valencia. You were excited and angry. My opinion was that Sebastian would speak if the matter was put to him right. So I cut the rope that tied him and we ran away through the back door of the hotel."
Her dark eyes, proud and passionate, began to smoulder. But the voice with which she answered him was silken smooth.
"I see. You pretended to be working with me—and then you betrayed me. Is that it?"
"If you like," he said with a little shrug. "I backed my judgment against your impatience. And it turns out that I was right."
"How? What has happened? Where is Sebastian?"
"He is galloping toward the hills as fast as he can—at least I hope he is. What happened is that he told me where Gordon is hidden."
"At your house. When you were there to-day you must have passed within twenty feet of him."
"But—do you mean that Pablo and Sebastian took him there?"
"Exactly. They did not foresee that you would come to town, Valencia." He added, after a moment: "I have seen Mr. Gordon, talked with him, and released him. At this moment he is in your brother's room, probably asleep."
All the sharpness had died out of the young woman's voice when she turned to her cousin and spoke with a humility rare to her.
"Forgive me, Manuel. I always know best about everything. I drive ahead and must have my own way, even when it is not the wise one. You did just right to ignore me."
She laid her hand on his coat sleeve pleadingly, and he lifted it to his lips.
"Nina ... the Queen can do no wrong. But I saw you were driving Sebastian to stubbornness. I tried to let him see we meant to be his friends if he would let us."
"Yes, you were right. Tell me everything, please." She paused just a moment before she said quietly: "But first, what about Mr. Gordon? He is ... uninjured?"
"Beaten and mauled and starved, but still of the gayest courage," answered the Spaniard with enthusiasm. "Did I not say that he was a hero? My cousin, I say it again. The fear of death is not in his heart."
He did not see the gleam in her dark eyes, the flush that beat into her dusky face. "Starved as well as beaten, Manuel?"
"They were trying to force him to give up his claim to the valley. But he—as I live the American is hard as Gibraltar."
"They dared to starve him—to torture him. I shall see that they are punished," she cried with the touch of feminine ferocity that is the heritage of the south.
"No need, Valencia," returned Pesquiera with a dry little laugh. "Mr. Gordon has promised himself to attend to that."
He told her the story from first to last. Intently she listened, scarce breathing until he had finished.
Manuel had told the tale with scrupulous fairness, but already her sympathies were turning.
"And he wouldn't agree not to prosecute?" she asked.
"No. It is his right to do so if he likes, Valencia."
She brushed this aside with an impatient wave of her hand. "Oh, his right! Doesn't he owe something to us—to me—and especially to you?"
"No, he owes me nothing. What I did was done for you, and not for him," the Spaniard replied instantly.
"Then to me at least he is in debt. I shall ask him to drop the prosecution."
"He is what his people call straight. But he is hard—hard as jade."
They were walking along a dark lane unlighted save by the stars. Valencia turned to him impetuously.
"Manuel, you are good. You do not like this man, but you save him because—because my heart is torn when my people do wrong. For me you take much trouble—you risk much. How can I thank you?"
"Nina mia, I am thanked if you are pleased. It is your love I seek, Heart of mine." He spoke tremulously, taking her hands in his.
For the beat of a heart she hesitated. "You have it. Have I not given my word that—after the American was saved——?"
He kissed her. Hers was a virginal soul, but full-blooded. An unsuspected passion beat in her veins. Not for nothing did she have the deep, languorous eyes, the perfect scarlet lips, the sumptuous grace of an artist's ideal. Fires lay banked within her in spite of the fine purity of her nature. Nature had poured into her symmetrical mold a rich abundance of what we call sex.
The kisses of Manuel stirred within her new and strange emotions, though she accepted rather than returned them. A faint vague unease chilled her heart. Was it because she had been immodest in letting him so far have his way?
When they returned to the hotel Manuel's ring was on her finger. She was definitely engaged to him.
It was long before she slept. She thought of Manuel, the man chosen it seemed by Fate to be her mate. But she thought, too, of the lithe, broad-shouldered young American whose eyes could be so tender and again so hard. Why was it he persisted in filling her mind so much of the time? Why did she both admire him and resent his conduct, trust him to the limit one hour and distrust the next? Why was it that he—an unassuming American without any heroics—rather than her affianced lover seemed to radiate romance as he moved? She liked Manuel very much, she respected him greatly, trusted him wholly, but—it was this curly-headed youth of her mother's race that set her heart beating fast a dozen times a day.
She resolved resolutely to put him out of her mind. Had he not proved himself unworthy by turning the head of Juanita, whom he could not possibly expect to marry? Was not Manuel in every way worthy of her love? Her finger touched the diamond ring upon her hand. She would keep faith in thought as well as in word and deed.
At last she fell asleep—and dreamed of a blond, gray-eyed youth fighting for his life against a swarm of attacking Mexicans.
DICK LIGHTS A CIGARETTE
Gordon met Miss Valdes in the El Tovar dining-room next morning. He was trying at the same time to tell Davis the story of his kidnaping and to eat a large rare steak with French-fried potatoes. The young man had chosen a seat that faced the door. The instant his eyes fell upon her he gave up both the story and the steak. Putting aside his napkin, he rose to meet her.
She had fallen asleep thinking of him, her dreams had been full of his vivid personality, and she had wakened to an eager longing for the sight of his gay, mocking eyes. But she had herself under such good control that nobody could have guessed how fast her heart was beating as her fingers touched his.
"We are glad your adventure is ended, Mr. Gordon, and that it has turned out no worse. Probably Mr. Davis has told you that he and I got our heads together a great many times a day," she said, a little formally.
"You were mighty good to take so much interest in such a scalawag," he answered warmly.
The color deepened ever so little in her face. "I couldn't let my men commit murder under the impression they were doing me a service," she explained lightly. "There are several things I want to talk over with you. Can you call on me this morning, Mr. Gordon?"
He put the question so forcefully that she smiled and dashed a bucket of cold water over his enthusiasm.
"If you'll be so good then. And bring Mr. Davis along with you, please. He'll keep us from quarreling too much."
"I'll throw him out of the window if he don't behave right," Davis promised joyfully. He was happy to-day, and he did not care who knew it.
Valencia passed on to her table, and Dick resumed his seat. He had a strong interest in this young woman, but even the prospect of a talk with her could not make him indifferent to the rare steak and French-fried potatoes before him. He was a healthy normal American in his late twenties, and after several days of starvation well-cooked food looked very good to him.
"There's some mail waiting for you upstairs—one of the letters is a registered one, mailed at Corbett's," his friend told him as they rose to leave. He was like a hen with one chick in his eagerness to supply Dick's wants and in his reluctance to let Gordon out of his sight.
The registered letter was the one Valencia had sent him, inclosing the one written by her grandfather to her father. Her contrite little note went straight to his emotions. If not in words, at least in spirit, it pleaded for pardon. Even the telegram she had wired implied an undeniable interest in him. Dick went with a light heart to the interview she had appointed him.
He slipped an arm through that of Davis. "Come on, you old bald-headed chaperone. Didn't you hear the lady give you a bid to her party this mo'ning? Get a move on you."
"Ain't you going to let her invite get cold before you butt in?" retorted Steve amiably.
Valencia took away from the dining-room a heart at war with itself. The sight of his gaunt face, carrying the scars of many wounds and the lines marked by hunger, stirred insurgent impulses. The throb of passion and of the sweet protective love that is at the bottom of every woman's tenderness suffused her cheeks with warm life and made her eyes wonderful. Out of the grave he had come back to her, this indomitable foe who played the game with such gay courage. It was useless to tell herself that she was plighted to a better man, a worthier one. Scamp he might be, but Dick Gordon held her heart in the hollow of his strong brown hand.
Some impulse of shyness, perhaps of reluctance, had restrained her from wearing Manuel's ring at breakfast. But when she returned to her room she went straight to the desk where she had locked it and put the solitaire on her finger. The fear of disloyalty drove her back to her betrothed from the enticement of forbidden thoughts. She must put Richard Gordon out of her mind. It was worse than madness to be dreaming of him now that she was plighted to another.
Gordon, coming eagerly to meet her, found a young woman more reserved, more distant. He was conscious of this even before his eyes stopped at the engagement ring sparkling on her finger, the visible evidence that his rival had won.
"You have been treated cruelly, Mr. Gordon. Tell me that you are again all right," she said, the color flooding her face at the searching question of his eyes.
"Right as a rivet, thanks. It is to you I owe my freedom, I suppose."
"To Manuel," she corrected. "His judgment was better than mine."
"I can believe that. He didn't ride all night across dangerous mountain roads to save me."
"Oh, that!" She tossed off his thanks with a little shrug. "They are so impulsive, my boys ... like children, you know.... I was a little afraid they might——"
"I was a little afraid myself they might," he agreed dryly. "But when you say children—well, don't you think wolves is a more accurate term for them?"
"Oh, no—no!" Her protest was quick, eager, imperative. "You don't know how loyal they can be—how faithful. They are really just like children, so impulsive—so unreasoning."
"Afraid I can't enthuse with you on that subject for a day or two yet," he answered with a laugh. "Truth is I found their childlike impulses both painful and annoying. Next time you see them you might mention that I'm liable to have an impulse of my own they won't enjoy."
"That's one of the things I want to talk with you about. Manuel says you mean to prosecute. I hope you won't. They're friends of mine. They thought they were helping me. Of course I have no claim on you, but——"
"You have a claim, Miss Valdes. We'll take that up presently. Just now we're talking about a couple of criminals due for a term in the penitentiary. I offered them terms. They wouldn't accept. Good enough. They'll have to stand the gaff, I reckon."
She realized at once there was no use arguing with him. The steel in his eyes told her he had made up his mind and was not to be moved. But she could not desert her foolish dependents.
"I know. What you say is quite true, but—I'll have to come to some agreement with you. I can't let them be punished for their loyalty to me."
Her direct, unflinching look, its fearlessness, won his admiration. In her slim suppleness, vibrant, feminine to the finger tips, alluring with the unconscious appeal of sex, there was a fine courage to face frankly essential facts. But he was a hard man to move once he had made up his mind. For all his frivolous impudence and his boyish good nature, he knew his own mind, and held to it with the stiffness characteristic of outdoor Westerners.
"You're not in this, Miss Valdes. I'll settle my own accounts with your friends Sebastian and Pablo."
"But even for your own sake——" She stopped, intuitively aware that this was not the ground upon which to treat with him. He would never drop the charges against the Mexicans merely because there was danger in pressing them.
"I reckon I'll have to try to look out for myself. Maybe next time I won't be so easy a mark," he answered with an almost insolent laugh.
Valencia was a little puzzled. Things were not going right, and she did not quite know the reason. There was just a touch of bitterness in his voice, of aloofness in his manner. She did not know that the sight of the solitaire sparkling on her left hand stirred in him the impulse to hurt her, to refuse rather than concede her requests.
"You're not going to push the cases against Pablo and Sebastian and still try to live in the valley, are you?" she asked, beginning to feel a little irritation at him.
"That's just what I'm going to do."
"You mustn't. I won't have it. Don't you see what my people will think, that because Pablo and Sebastian were loyal to me——"
His acrid smile cut her sentence in two. "That's about the third time you've mentioned their loyalty. Me, I don't see it. Sebastian owns land under the Valdes grant. He didn't want me to take it from him. Mr. Pablo Menendez—well, he had private reasons of his own, too."
The resentment flamed in her heart. If he was shameless enough to refer to the affair with Juanita she would let him know that she knew.
"What were his reasons, Mr. Gordon—that is, if they are not a private affair between you and him?"
"Not at all." The steel-blue eyes met hers, steadily. Dick was yielding to a desire to hurt himself as well as her, to defy her judgment if she had no better sense than to condemn him. "The idiot is jealous."
"Jealous—why?" The angry color beat its way to the surface above her cheek bones. Her disdain was regal.
"What about Juanita?"
"The usual thing, Miss Valdes. He was afraid she had the bad taste to prefer another man to himself."
Davis broke in. "Now, don't you be a goat, Dick. Miss Valdes, he——"
"If you please, Mr. Davis. I'm quite sure Mr. Gordon is able to defend himself," she replied scornfully.
"Didn't know I was defending myself. What's the charge against me?" asked the young miner with a touch of quiet insolence.
"There isn't any—if you don't see what it is. And you're quite right, Mr. Gordon. Your difficulties with Pablo are none of my business. You'll have to settle them yourselves—with Juanita's help. May I ask whether you received the registered letter I sent you, Mr. Gordon?"
Dick was angry. Her cool contempt told him that he had been condemned. He knew that he was acting like an irresponsible schoolboy, but he would not justify himself. She might think what she liked.
"Found it waiting for me this morning, Miss Valdes."
"It was very fair and generous of you to send me the letter, I recognize that fully. But of course I can't accept such a sacrifice," she told him stiffly.
"Not necessary you should. Object if I smoke here?"
Valencia was a little surprised. He had never before offered to smoke in the house except at her suggestion. "As you please, Mr. Gordon. Why should I object?"
From his coat pocket Dick took the letter Don Bartolome had written to his son, and from his vest pocket a match. He twisted the envelope into a spill, lit one end, and found a cigarette. Very deliberately he puffed the cigarette to a glow, holding the letter in his fingers until it had burned to a black flake. This he dropped in the fireplace, and along with it the unsmoked cigarette.
"Easiest way to settle that little matter," he said negligently.
"I judge you're a little impulsive, too, sometimes, Mr. Gordon," Valencia replied coldly.
"I never rode all night over the mountains to save a man who was trying to rob me of my land," he retorted.
This brought a sparkle to her eyes. "I had to think of my foolish men who were getting into trouble."
"Was that why you offered a hundred dollars' reward for the arrest of these same men?" came his indolent, satiric reply.
"Don Manuel offered the reward," she told him haughtily.
An impish smile was in his eyes. "At your suggestion, he tells me. And I understand you insisted on paying the bill, Miss Valdes."
"Why should he pay it? The men worked for me. They were brought up on my father's place. They are my responsibility, not his," she claimed with visible irritation.
"And now they're my responsibility, too—until I land them in the penitentiary," he added cheerfully.
From his pocket he took a billbook and selected two fifty-dollar bills. These he offered to Valencia.
She stood very straight. "You owe me nothing, sir."
"I owe you the hundred dollars you paid to get hold of Sebastian. And I'm going to pay it."
"I don't acknowledge the debt. I wanted Sebastian for his sake, not yours. Certainly I shall not accept the money."
"Just as you say. It isn't mine. Care if I smoke again?" he asked genially.
She caught his meaning in a flash. "Not at all. Burn them if you like."
"Now, see here," interrupted Davis amiably. "You're both acting like a pair of kids. I'm not going to stand for any hundred-dollar smokes, Dick. Gimme those bills." He snatched them from his friend and put them in his pocket. "When you two get reasonable again we'll decide whose money it is. Till then I expect I'll draw the interest on it."
"And now, since our business is ended, I think I'll not detain you any longer, Mr. Gordon, except to warn you that it will be foolhardy to return to the Rio Chama Valley with intentions such as you have."
"Good of you to warn me, Miss Valdes. It's not the first time, either, is it? But I'm that bull-headed. Steve will give me a recommend as the most sot chump in New Mexico. Won't you Steve?"
"I sure will—before a notary if you like. You've got a government mule backed off the map."
"I've done my duty, anyhow." Miss Valdes turned to the older man, and somehow the way she did it seemed to wipe Gordon out of the picture. "There is something I want to talk over with you, Mr. Davis. Can you wait a few moments?"
"Sure I can—all day if you like."
Dick retired with his best bow. "Steve, you always was popular with the ladies."
Valencia, uncompromising, waited until he had gone. Then, swiftly, with a little leap of impulse as it were, she appealed to Davis.
"Don't let him go back to the valley. Don't let him push the cases against Sebastian and Pablo."
The old miner shook his head "Sorry, Miss Valencia. Wish I could stop him, but I can't. He'll go his own way—always would."
"But don't you see they'll kill him. It's madness to go back there while he's pushing the criminal case. Before it was bad enough, but now——" She threw up her hands with a gesture of despair.
"I reckon you're right. But I can't help it."
"Then look out for him. Don't let him ride around in the hills. Don't let him leave the house at night. Never let him go alone. Remember that he is in danger every hour while he remains in the valley."
"I'll remember, Miss Valencia," Davis promised.
He wondered as he walked away why the talk between Dick and Miss Valdes had gone so badly. He knew his friend had come jubilantly, prepared to do anything she asked of him. The fear and anxiety that had leaped to her face the instant Gordon had gone showed him that the girl had a deep interest in the young man. She, too, had meant to meet him half way in wiping out the gulf between them. Instead, they had only increased it.
WHEN THE WIRES WERE CUT
Don Manuel rode into the moonlit plaza of the Valdes ranch, dismounted, and flung the reins to the boy that came running. Pesquiera nodded a careless greeting and passed into the house. He did not ask of anyone where Valencia was, nor did he send in a card of announcement. A lover's instinct told him that he would find her in the room that served both as an office and a library for her, seated perhaps before the leaping fireglow she loved or playing softly on the piano in the darkness.
The door was open, and he stood a moment on the threshold to get accustomed to the dim light.
A rich, low-pitched voice came across the room to him.
"It is you, Manuel?"
He stepped swiftly forward to the lounge upon which she was lying and knelt on one knee beside her, lifting her hand to his lips. "It is I, corazon mia, even Manuel the lucky."
She both smiled and sighed at that. A chord in her responded to the extravagance of his speech, even though vaguely it did not quite satisfy. A woman of the warm-blooded south and no plaster saint, she answered presently with shy, reluctant lips the kisses of her lover. Why should she not? Had he not won her by meeting the test she had given him? Was he not a gallant gentleman, of her own race and caste, bound to her by ties of many sorts, in every way worthy to be the father of her children? If she had to stifle some faint, indefinable regret, was it not right that she should? Her bridges were burned behind her. He was the man of her choice. She listened, eyes a little wistful, while he poured out ardently the tale of his devotion.
"You do love me, don't you, Manuel?" she demanded, a little fiercely. It was as if she wanted to drown any doubts she might have of her own feeling in the certainty of his.
"More than life itself, I do believe," he cried in a low voice.
Her lithe body turned, so that her shining eyes were close to his.
"Dear Manuel, I am glad. You don't know how worried I've been ... still am. Perhaps if I were a man it would be different, but I don't want my people to take the life of this stranger. But they mean him harm—especially since he has come back and intends to punish Pablo and Sebastian. I want them to let the law take its course. Something tells me that we shall win in the end. I've talked to them—and talked—but they say nothing except 'Si, dona.' But with you to help me——"
"They'd better not touch him again," broke in her lover swiftly.
"It's a great comfort to me, Manuel, that you have blotted out your own quarrel with him. It was magnanimous, what I should expect of you."
He said nothing, but the hand that lay on hers seemed suddenly to stiffen. A kind of fear ran shivering through her. Quickly she rose from the couch.
"Manuel, tell me that I am right, that you don't mean to ... hurt him?" Her dark eyes searched his unflinchingly. "You don't mean ... you can't mean ... that——?"
"Let us forget the American and remember only that we love, my beloved," he pleaded.
"No ... No!" The voice of the girl was sharp and imperative. "I want the truth. Is it that you are still thinking of murdering him, Manuel?"
The sting of her words brought a flush to his cheeks. "I fight fair, Valencia. I set against his life my own, with all the happiness that has come flooding it. Nor is it that I seek the man's life. For me he might live a thousand years—and welcome. But my honor——"
"No, Manuel. No—no—no! I will not have it. If you are betrothed to me your life is mine. You shall not risk it in a barbarous duel."
"Let us change the subject, dear heart."
"Not till I hear you say that you have given up this wicked intention of yours."
He gave up the attempt to evade her and met her fairly as one man does another.
"I can't say that, Valencia, not even for you. This quarrel lies between him and me. I have suffered humiliation and disgrace. Until those are wiped out there must be war between me and the American."
"Since the day I first wore your ring, Manuel, I have asked nothing of you. I ask now that you will forget the slight this man has put upon you ... because I ask it of you with all my heart."
A slight tremor ran through his blood. He felt himself slipping from his place with her.
"I can't, Valencia. You don't know what you ask, how impossible it is for me—a Pesquiera, son of my honored fathers—to grant such a request." He stretched his hands toward her imploringly.
"Yet you say you love me?"
"Heaven knows whether it is not true, my cousin."
"You want me to believe that, even though you refuse the first real request I ever made of you?"
"Anything else in the world that is in my power."
"It is easy to say that, Manuel, when it isn't something else I want. Give me this American's life. I shall know, then, that you love me."
"You know now," he answered quietly.
"Is love all sighs and vows?" she cried impatiently. "Will it not sacrifice pride and vanity for the object of its devotion?"
"Everything but honor," answered the man steadfastly.
She made a gesture of despair.
"What is this honor you talk so much about? It is neither Christian nor lawful nor right."
"It is a part of me, Valencia."
"Then your ideas are archaic. The duel was for a time when every man had to seek his personal redress. There is law in this twentieth century."
"Not as between man and man in the case of a personal indignity—at least, not for Manuel Pesquiera."
"But it is so needless. We know you are brave; he knows it, too. Surely your vanity——"
He smiled a little sadly.
"I think it is not vanity, but something deeper. None of my ancestors could have tolerated this stigma, nor can their son. My will has nothing to do with it, and my desire still less. It is kismet."
"Then you must know the truth—that if you kill this man I can never——"
"Never marry you."
"His blood would stand between us."
"Do you mean that you—love him?"
Her dark eyes met his steadily.
"I don't think I mean that, Manuel. How could I mean that, since I love you and am betrothed to you? Sometimes I hate him. He is so insolent in his daring. Then, too, he is my enemy, and he has come here to set this happy valley to hate and evil. Yet, if I should hurt him, it would stand between us forever."
"I am sorry."
"Only sorry, Manuel?"
He clamped his teeth on the torrent of protest that rose within him when she handed him back his ring. It would do no good to speak more. The immutable fact stood between them.
"I did not know life could be so hard—and cruel," she cried out in a burst of passion.
She went to the open window and looked out upon the placid, peaceful valley. She had a swift, supple way of moving, as if her muscles responded with effortless ease to her volition; but the young man noticed that to-night there was a drag to her motions.
His heart yearned toward her. He longed mightily to take her in his arms and tell her that he would do as she wished. But, as he had said, something in him more potent than vanity, than pride, than his will, held him to the course he had set for himself. His views of honor might be archaic and ridiculous, but he lived by his code as tenaciously as had his fathers. Gordon had insulted and humiliated him publicly. He must apologize or give him satisfaction. Until he had done one or the other Manuel could not live at peace with himself. He had put a powerful curb upon his desire to wait as long as he had. Circumstances had for a time taken the matter out of his hands, but the time had come when he meant to press his claims. The American might refuse the duel; he could not refrain from defending himself when Pesquiera attacked.
A step sounded in the doorway, and almost simultaneously a voice.
"Dona, are you here?"
The room was lighted only by the flickering fire; but Valencia, her eyes accustomed to the darkness, recognized the boy as Juan Gardiez.
"Yes, I am here, Juan. What have you to tell me?" she said quickly.
"I do not know, senorita. But the men—Pablo, Sebastian; all of them—are gone."
"Gone where?" she breathed.
"I do not know. To-day I drove a cow and calf to Willow Springs. I am but returned. The houses are empty. Senor Barela's wife says she saw men riding up the hill toward Corbett's—eight, nine, ten of them."
"To Corbett's?" She stared whitely at him without moving. "How long ago?"
"An hour ago—or more."
"Saddle Billy at once and bring him round," the girl ordered crisply.
She turned as she spoke and went lightly to the telephone. With the need of action, of decision, her hopelessness was gone. There was a hard, bright light in her eyes that told of a resolution inflexible as tempered steel when once aroused.
"Give me Corbett's—at once, please. Hallo, Central—Corbett's——"
No answer came, though she called again and again.
"There must be something wrong with the telephone," suggested Don Manuel.
She dropped the receiver and turned quietly to him.
"The wires have been cut."
"But, why? What is it all about?"
"Merely that my men are anticipating you. They have gone to murder the American. Deputy sheriffs from Santa Fe to-day came here to arrest Pablo and Sebastian. The men suspected and were hidden. Now they have gone to punish Mr. Gordon for sending the officers."
She could not have touched him more nearly. He came to her with burning eyes.
"How do you know? What makes you think so?"
She told him, briefly and simply, giving more detailed reasons.
Without a word, he turned and left her. She could hear him rushing through the hall, traced his progress by the slamming of the door, and presently caught sight of him running toward the corral. He did not hear, or heed, her call for him to wait.
The girl hurried out of the house after him, in time to see him slap a saddle on his bronco, swing to his seat lightly, and gallop in a cloud of dust to the road.
Valencia waited for no more. Quickly running to her room, she slipped on a khaki riding-skirt. Her deft, tapering fingers moved swiftly, so that she was ready, crop in hand, booted and spurred, by the time Juan brought round her horse.
It took but an instant to lift herself to the saddle and send Billy galloping forward.
Already her cousin had disappeared in great clouds of dust over the brow of the hill.
Dick Gordon and Davis were sitting on the porch of their cabin, which was about an eighth of a mile from the main buildings of the Corbett place. They had returned the day before from Santa Fe, along with two deputy sheriffs who had come to arrest Pablo and Sebastian. The officers had scoured the valley for two days, and as yet had not caught a glimpse of the men they had come to get. Their inquiries were all met by a dogged ignorance on the part of the Mexicans, who had of a sudden turned surprisingly stupid. No, they had seen nothing of Pablo or of Sebastian. They knew nobody of that name—unless it was old Pablo Gardiez the senors wished to see. Many strangers desired to see him, for he was more than a hundred years old and still remembered clearly the old days.