"It's anybody's land over there," growled Barlow. "They'd best keep out of it."
They pushed on across the fields, noting casually how they were all leveled and ditched for irrigation, and came at last to the creek where they rested under an oak and drank deeply and smoked. As they rose to go on they saw four horsemen bearing down upon them from the direction of the ranch houses.
"Vacqueros," said Barlow. "They'll be wantin' to know if we're lost."
"They look more like brigands than cow men," grunted Kendric. "Every man jack of them wears a rifle. And they're in a rush, Twisty, old mate. What will you bet they don't herd us back where we came from?"
"Let 'em try it on," Barlow shot back at him, his eyes narrowing on the oncoming riders. "I'm goin' to roll up in my blanket under those three peaks tonight if the whole Mexican army shows up."
The two Americans stopped and stood ready to ease their shoulders out of their packs and start pumping lead if the newcomers turned out to be half the desperadoes they appeared. "The way to argue with these sort of gents," said Barlow contemptuously, "is shoot their eyes out first and talk next." But as the foremost of the little cavalcade drew up in front of them, with his three followers curbing their horses a few paces in his rear, the fellow's greeting was amazingly hospitable.
"Buenas dias, amigos," he called to them. But, though he hailed them in the name of friendship, his eyes were sullen and gave the lie to his speech. "You would be fatigued with walking across the cursed desert; you would be parched with thirst. Yonder," and he pointed toward the distant white walls, "is coolness and pleasant welcome awaiting you."
His followers were out-and-out ragamuffins, wild-looking fellows with their unshaven cheeks and tangled hair and fierce eyes. Their spokesman stood apart in appearance as well as in position, being somewhat extravagantly dressed, showing much ornamentation both on his own person and that of his mount in the way of silver buckles and spangles. He was the youngest of the crowd, not over twenty-two or three from the look of him, with a nicely groomed black mustache. The horse under him was a superb creature, a great savage fiery-eyed sorrel stallion.
"Thanks," returned Barlow. "But my friend and I are on our way over there." He pointed. "We are students of entymology and are studyin' certain new butterflies." All along, until the very moment, he had fully intended explaining by saying they were on a hunting trip. But as he spoke it struck him that the slopes about his three peaks would not harbor a jack rabbit, and furthermore on the instant a big golden butterfly went flapping by him, putting the idea into his head.
The young Mexican nodded but insisted.
"There will be time for butterfly catching tomorrow," he said carelessly. "Today you will honor us by riding back to the Hacienda Montezuma. You are expected, senores; everything is prepared for you. Oyez, Pedro, Juanito," turning in his saddle and addressing two of his men. "Rope two horses and let los Americanos have yours." And when both Pedro and Juanito frowned and hesitated, his eyes flashed and he cried out angrily at them: "Pronto! It is commanded!"
They rode away toward a herd of horses half a mile down the valley, their riatas soon in their hands and widening and swinging into great loops. Presently they were back, leading two captured ponies. Dismounting, they made impromptu hackamores of their ropes and mounted bareback, leaving their own saddles empty for Kendric and Barlow.
"Look here, amigo," said Kendric then. "We're much obliged for the kind invitation. But you've got the wrong guests. If your outfit was expecting newcomers it was someone else."
The Mexican lifted his fine black brows.
"Then are you not Senores Kendric and Barlow?" he asked impudently.
They stared wonderingly at him, then at each other.
"You're some little guesser, stranger," grunted Barlow. "Who told you all you know?"
"Go easy, Twisty," laughed Kendric, his interest caught. Affably, to the Mexican, he said: "You're right, senor. And, to complete the introductions, would you mind telling us who you are?"
"I?" He touched up his mustache and again his eyes flashed; involuntarily, as he spoke his name, he laid his hand on the grip of the revolver bumping at his hip, giving the perfectly correct impression that the man who wore that name must ever stand ready to defend himself: "I am Fernando Escobar, at your service for what you please, senor!"
Never a muscle of either Kendric's face or Barlow's twitched at the information though inwardly each man started. Before now, many times in the flood of their tumultous lives, they had lived through moments when the thing to do was control all outward expression of emotion and think fast.
"I'd say, Twisty," said Kendric lightly, "that it is downright kind of Senor Escobar to extend so hearty an invitation. It would be the pleasant thing to rest up in the shade during the afternoon. Tomorrow, perhaps, it could be arranged that he would let us have a couple of horses to make our little trip into the hills butterfly-catching?"
But Barlow, fingering his forelock, looked anything but pleased. His eyes went swiftly to the three peaks across the valley, then frowning up the valley to the ranch houses. Obviously, he meant to go straight about his business, all the more eager to come to grips with the naked situation since Escobar was on the ground and had made himself known. He opened his lips to speak. On the instant Kendric saw a swift, subtle change in his eyes, a look of surprise and of uncertainty. And then, abruptly, Barlow said:
"Oh, all right. I'm tired hoofin' it, anyway," and swung up into the saddle on the nearest horse, pack and all.
Escobar wheeled his horse, as though glad to have his errand done, and rode back toward the upper end of the valley, his ragged following close at his heels, Kendric and Barlow bringing up the rear.
"What was it, Twisty?" demanded Kendric softly. "What did you see? What made you change your mind all of a sudden."
"Look at the cordillera just back of the ranch house, Jim," answered Barlow, guardedly.
Kendric looked and in a moment understood Barlow's perplexity. There again were three upstanding peaks, much in general outline and height like those across the valley. For the life of him Barlow did not know which was the group toward which he had been directed by Juarez to steer his course. Doubtless Escobar did know. And if Escobar were going up valley, it would be just as well to go with him.
As they drew near the big adobe house both men were interested. The building had once upon a time, perhaps two or three hundreds of years ago, been a Spanish mission; so much was told eloquently by the lines of high adobe walls ringing the buildings and by the architecture of the main building itself. There were columns, arches, corridors after the old mission style. But it had all been made over, added to, so that it was now a residence of a score or more of rooms. It spread out covering the entire top of a knoll whereon were many large oaks. At the back, rising sharply, was the barren slope of the mountain.
Their gaze was drawn suddenly from the house itself to a rider darting out through the high arched gateway in the adobe wall. A beautiful horse, snowy, glistening white, groomed to the last hair, an animal of fine thin racing forelegs proudly lifted and high-flung head, shot out of the shadows like a shaft of sunlight. On its back what at first appeared an elegantly dressed young man, a youth even fastidiously and fancifully accoutered, with riding boots that shone and a flaunting white plume and red lined cape floating wildly. Only when the approaching rider came close and threw up a gauntleted hand to the wide black hat, saluting laughingly, did they recognize this for the same youth who had come with Ruiz Rios to Ortega's gambling house.
"Zoraida Castelmar!" gasped Kendric.
Turning in his amazement to his companion he caught a strange look in Barlow's eyes, a strange flush in Barlow's cheeks. Then he saw only the girl's dark, passionate face and scarlet lips and burning eyes as she called softly:
"Welcome to the Hacienda Montezuma! The gods have willed that you come. The gods and I!"
And into Kendric's bewildered face, ignoring Barlow, she laughed triumphantly.
HOW ONE NOT ACCUSTOMED TO TAKING ANOTHER MAN'S ORDERS RECEIVES THE COMMAND OF THE QUEEN LADY
Had horse and rider been only a painting, immovable upon hung canvas, they would have drawn to themselves the enrapt eyes of mute, admiring artists. Endowed with the glorious attribute of pulsating life, they fascinated. Kendric saw the white mare's neck arch, marked how the satiny skin rippled, how the dainty ears tipped forward, how the large intelligent eyes bespoke the proud spirit. He could fancy the mare prancing forth from the stables of an Eastern prince, the finest pure bred Arabian of his stud, the royal favorite, the white queen-rose of his costly gardens. From the mare he looked to the rider, not so much as a man may regard a woman but as he must pay tribute to animal perfection. He told himself that as a woman Zoraida Castelmar displeased him; that there was no place in his fancies for the bold eyes of an adventuress. But he deemed a man might look upon her as impersonally as upon the white mare, giving credit where credit was due. It struck him then that all that was wrong with Zoraida Castelmar was that she was an anachronism; that had he lived a thousand years ago and had she then, a barbaric queen, stepped before him, he would have seen the superb beauty of her and would have gone no further. Before now he had felt that she was "foreign." That was on the border. Here, deep in Old Mexico, she still remained foreign. Rightly she belonged to another age, if not to another star.
For the moment she sat smiling at him, her eyes dancing and yet masking her ultimate thought. Triumph he had glimpsed and, as always, a shadowy hint of mockery. Suddenly she turned from him and put out her gauntleted hand to Barlow, flashing him another sort of smile, one that made Barlow's eyes brighten and brought a hotter flush to his tanned cheeks.
"You have kept your promise with me," she said softly. "I shall not forget and you will not regret!" Even while she spoke her eyes drifted back to Kendric, laughing at him, taunting him.
He looked sharply at Barlow. But he said nothing and Barlow, intent upon the girl, did not note his turned head.
Zoraida turned imperiously upon Fernando Escobar. "These men are my guests," she said sharply, her tone filled with defiant warning. "Remember that, Senor el Capitan. You will escort them to the house where my cousin will receive them. Until we meet at table, senores all."
From her neck hung a tiny whistle from a thin gold chain; she lifted it to her lips, blew a long clear note and with a last sidelong look at Kendric touched her dainty spurs to her mare's sides and shot away.
"You will follow me," said Escobar stiffly. "This way, caballeros."
He pressed by them, dismissing his following with a glance, and rode through the wide arched gateway. Barlow turned in after him but hesitated when Kendric called coolly:
"I have small hankering to accept the lady's hospitality, Barlow. Why should we establish ourselves here instead of going on about our business? By the lord, her invitation smacks to me too damned much of outright command!"
"No use startin' anything, Jim," said Barlow. "Come ahead."
At them both Escobar smiled contemptuously.
"Look," he said, pointing toward the adobe. "Judge if it be wise to hesitate when la senorita reina says enter."
They saw graveled driveways and flower bordered walks under the oaks; blossoming, fragrant shrubs welcoming countless birds; an expanse of velvet lawn with a marble-rimmed pool and fountain. A beautiful garden, empty one instant, then slowly filling as from about a far corner of the house came a line of men. Young men, every one of them, fine-looking, dark-skinned fellows dressed after the extravagant fashion of the land which mothered them, with tall conical hats and slashed trousers, broad sashes and glistening boots. They came on like military squads, silent, erect, eyes full ahead. Out in the driveway they halted, fifty of them. And like one man, they saluted.
"Will you enter as a guest?" jeered Escobar.
Kendric's anger flared up.
"I'll tell you one thing, my fine friend Fernando Escobar," he said hotly, "I don't like the cut of your sunny disposition. You and I are not going to mix well, and you may as well know it from the start. As for this 'guest' business, just what do you mean?"
Escobar shrugged elaborately and half veiled his insolent eyes with the long lashes.
"You mean," went on Kendric stubbornly, "your 'Queen Lady' as you call her, has instructed her rabble to bring us in, willy-nilly?"
"Ai!" cried Escobar in mock surprise. "El Americano reads the secret thought!"
"Come ahead, Jim," urged Barlow anxiously. "Don't I tell you there is no sense startin' a rumpus? Suppose you weeded out half of 'em, the other half would get you right. And haven't we got enough ahead of us without goin' out of our way, lookin' for a row?"
For answer Kendric gave his horse the spur and dashed through the gate. If a man had to tie into fifty of a hard-looking lot of devils like those saturnine henchmen of Zoraida, it would at least be a scrimmage worth a man's going down in; but Barlow was right and there was no doubt enough trouble coming without wandering afield for it.
So, close behind Escobar, they rode under the oaks and to the house. Here was a quadrangle, flanked about with white columns; through numerous arches one saw oaken doors set into the thick walls of the shaded building. The three men dismounted; three of the men in the driveway took the horses. Escobar stepped to the broad double door directly in front of them. As his spurred boot rang on the stone floor the door opened and Ruiz Rios opened to them. He bowed deeply, courteously, his manner cordial, his eyes inscrutable.
At his invitation they entered. He led them through a great, low-ceiled room where dim light hovered over luxurious appointments, across Oriental rugs and hardwood floors to a wide hallway. Down this for a long way, past a dozen doors at each hand and finally into a suite looking out into the gardens from a corner of the building. As they went in, two Mexican girls, young and pretty, with quick black eyes and in white caps and aprons, came out. The girls dropped their eyes, curtsied and passed on, as silent as little ghosts.
"Your rooms, senores," said Rios, standing aside for them. "When you are ready you will ring and a servant will show you to the patio, where I will be waiting for you. If there is anything forgotten, you have but to ring and ask."
He left them and hurried away, obviously glad to be done with them. They went in and closed the door and looked about them. Here were big leather chairs, a mahogany table, cigars, smoking trays, cigarets, a bottle of brandy and one of fine red wine standing forth hospitably. Through one door they saw an artistically and comfortably furnished bedroom; through another a tiled, glisteningly white bath; beyond the bath the second bedroom.
All this they marked at a glance. Then Kendric turned soberly to his companion.
"I've known you a good many years off and on, Twisty," he said bluntly, "for the sort of man to name pardner and friend. For half a dozen years, however, I've seen little of you. What have those half-dozen years done to you?"
"What do you mean?" asked Barlow.
"I mean that for a mate on a crazy expedition like this I want a man I can tie to. That means a man that turns off every card from the top, straight as they come. A man that doesn't bury the ace. I haven't held out anything on you. What have you held out on me?"
Barlow looked troubled. He uncorked the brandy bottle and helped himself, sipping slowly.
"You've got in mind what she said outside?" he asked.
"Yes. That and other things."
"If I had told you at the beginnin'," said Barlow, "that you and me were comin' to a place, lookin' for treasure, that was right next door to where Zoraida Castelmar lived, would you of come?"
"No. I don't think I would."
"Well, that's why I didn't tell you."
"And you promised her—just what?"
"That I'd be showin' up down this way. And that you'd be comin' along with me." He finished off his brandy and set his glass down hard.
Kendric took a cigaret and wandered across the room, looking out into the gardens. The string of men who had appeared at Zoraida's whistle, were filing off around the house again, going toward the nearby outbuildings.
"I'm not going to pump questions at you, Barlow," he said without turning. "What you do is up to you. Only, if you can't play the game straight with me, our trails fork for good and all. Now, let's get a bath and see the dance through."
Five minutes later Jim Kendric, splashing mightily in a roomy tub, began to sing under his breath. After all, matters were well enough. Life was not dull but infinitely profligate of promise. He fancied that Ruiz Rios was boiling inwardly with rage; the thought delighted him. His old zest flooded back full tide into his veins. His voice rose higher, his lively tune quickened. Barlow's face brightened at the sound and his lungs filled to a sigh of relief.
Within half an hour a servant ushered them into the patio. There, under a grape arbor, their chairs drawn close up to the little fountain, were Rios and Escobar, talking quietly. Both men rose as they appeared, offering chairs. Both were all that was courteous and yet it needed no guessing to understand that their courtesy was but like so much thin silken sheathing over steel; they were affable only because of a command. And that command, Zoraida's.
"As far as they are concerned," mused Kendric, "she is absolutely the Queen Lady. Wonder how she works it? Wouldn't judge either one of them an easy gent to handle."
The conversation was markedly impersonal. They spoke of stock raising, of the best breeds of beef cattle, of what had been done with irrigation and of what Rios planned for another year. It became clear that Zoraida was the sole owner of several thousand fair acres here and that Ruiz Rios stood in the position of general manager to his cousin. That he envied her her possessions, that it galled him to be her underling over these acres, was a fact which lay naked on top of many mere surmises. Once, with simulated carelessness, Escobar said:
"The rancho would have been yours, had there been no will, is it not so, amigo Rios?" And Ruiz flashed an angry look at him, knowing that the man taunted him.
"It is called the Rancho Montezuma, isn't it?" put in Kendric. "Why that name, Rios?"
"It is the old name," said Rios lightly. "That is all I know."
When a servant announced dinner they went to an immense dining-room wherein a prince might have taken his state meals. But Zoraida did not join them, sending word by one of the little Mexican maids that she would not appear. It was significant that no reason was offered; from the instant that they had set foot down at the hacienda it was to be known that here Zoraida did as she pleased and accounted to none. Two tall fellows, looking pure-bred Yaqui Indians, served perfectly, soft voiced, softer footed, stony eyed. During the meal Kendric fell into the way of chatting with young Escobar, seeking to draw him out and failing, while Barlow and Rios talked together, Rios regarding Barlow intently. When they rose from table Barlow accepted an invitation from Rios to look over the stables, while Kendric was led by Escobar back to the patio. Even then Kendric had the suspicion that the intention was to separate him from his friend, but he saw nothing to be done. He hardly looked for any sort of violence, and were such intended there was scant need to waste time over such trifles as separating two men who would have to stand against two score.
"If you will pardon me a moment, senor?" said Escobar briefly.
He left Kendric standing by the little fountain and disappeared. On the instant one of the little maids stole softly forward.
"This way, senor," she said, looking at him curiously.
"Where?" he demanded. "And why?"
She smiled and shook her head.
"It is commanded," she replied. "Will el senor Americano be so kind as to follow?"
He had asked why and got no answer. Now he demanded of himself, "Why not?" He was playing the other fellow's game and might as well play straight on until he saw what was what.
"Lead on," he said. "I'm with you."
CONCERNING THAT WHICH LAY IN THE EYES OF ZORAIDA
Jim Kendric guessed, before the last door was thrown open for him, that he was being led before Zoraida Castelmar. The serving maid flitted on ahead, out through a deep, shadow-filled doorway into the dusk, down a long corridor and into the house again at an end which Kendric judged must be close to the flank of the mountain. Down a second hallway, to a heavy, nail-studded door which opened only when the little maid had knocked and called. This room was lighted by a swinging lamp and its rays showed its scanty but rich furnishings, and the one who had opened, a tall, evil-looking Yaqui who wore in his sash a long-barreled revolver on one side and a longer, curved knife at the other. The girl sidled about the doorkeeper and, safe behind his back made a grimace of distaste at him, then hurried on. Again she knocked at a locked door; again it was swung open only when she had added her voice to her rapping. Who opened this door Kendric did not know; for it was pitch dark as soon as the door was shut after them and they stood in a room either windowless or darkened by thick curtains. But the girl hastened on before him and he followed the patter of her soft moccasins, albeit with a hand under his left arm pit; all of this locking and unlocking of doors and the attendant mystery struck him as clap-trap and he set it down as further play for effect by the mistress of the place, but none the less he was ready to strike back if a wary arm struck at him through the dark.
The girl had stopped before another door, Kendric close behind her. This time she neither knocked nor called. He heard her fingers groping along the wall; then the silvery tinkle of a bell faintly heard through the thick oak panels.
"You will wait," she whispered. And he knew that she was gone.
He was not forced to wait long. Suddenly the door was opened; he heard it move on its hinges and made out a pale rectangle of light. A softly modulated voice said: "Entra, senor." He stepped across the threshhold and into the presence of another serving girl, taller than the other two maidens, finer bred, a calm-eyed, serene girl of twenty dressed in a plain white gown girdled with a smooth gold band.
They were in a little anteroom; the curtains between them and the main apartment had made the light dim, for just beyond he could make out the blurred glowing of many lamps.
The girl's great calm eyes looked at him frankly an instant, vague shadows drifting across them. Then, abruptly, she put her lips quite close to his ear, and whispered: "Do not anger her, senor!" Then, stepping quickly to the curtain, she threw it back and he entered.
A vain, headstrong girl, deemed Kendric, given the opportunity and very great wealth, might be looked to for absurdities of this kind. But was all of this nothing more, nothing worse, than absurdity? Suppose Zoraida were sincere in all that she had said to him, in all the things she did? He had heard a rumor concerning Ruiz Rios, long ago, half forgotten. Certain wild deeds laid to the Mexican's door had brought forth the insinuation that he was a little mad. Zoraida had claimed kinship with him.
At any rate, to Kendric's matter-of-fact way of thinking, here was further clap-trap that might well have been the result of a mad mind working extravagantly. The room was empty. All four walls, from ceiling to floor, were draped in gorgeously rich hangings, oriental silks, he imagined, deep purples and yellows and greens and reds cunningly arranged so that their glowing colors and the ornamental designs worked upon them made no discordant clash of color. The chamber in which he had met Zoraida at the hotel was mild hued, colorless compared to this one. There were no chairs but a couch against each wall, each a bright spot with its high heaped cushions. In the middle of the room was a small square ebony stand; upon it, glowing like red fire upon its frail crystal stem, the familiar stone.
He had stepped a couple of paces into the room, his boots sinking without sound into the deep carpet. In no mood for a girl's whims, mad or sane, he waited, impatient and irritated. He regretted having come; he should have sat tight in the patio and let her come to him. No doubt she was spying on him now from behind the hangings somewhere. There was no comfort in the thought, no joy in imagining that while he stood forth in the clear light of the hanging lamps she and her maidens and attendants might all be watching him. He vastly preferred solid walls and thick doors to silken drapes.
While he waited, two distinct impressions slowly forced themselves upon him. One was that of a faint perfume, coming from whence he had no way of knowing, the unforgettable, almost sickeningly sweet fragrance he remembered. One instant he was hardly conscious of it, it was but a suspicion of a fragrance. And then it filled the room, strongly sweet, strangely pleasant, a near opiate in its soothing effect.
The other impression was no true sensation in that it was registered by none of the five senses; a true sensation only if in truth there is in man a subtle sixth sense, uncatalogued but vital. It was the old uncanny certainty that at last eyes, the eyes of none other than Zoraida Castelmar, were bent searchingly on him. So strong was the feeling on him that he turned about and fixed his own eyes on a particular corner where the silken folds hung graceful and loose. He felt that she was there, exactly at that spot.
He strode across the room and laid a sudden hand on the fabric. It parted readily and just behind it, her eyes more brilliant, more triumphant than he had ever seen them, stood Zoraida.
"Can you say now, Senor Americano," she cried out, the music of her voice rising and vibrating, "that I have not set the spell of my spirit upon your spirit, the influence of my mind upon your mind? You stood here and the chamber was empty about you. I came, but so that you might not hear with your ears and might not see with your eyes. And yet, looking at you through a pin hole in a drawn curtain, I made you conscious of me and called voicelessly to you to come and you came!"
There was laughter in her oblique eyes and upon her scarlet lips, and Kendric knew that it was not merely light mirth but the deeper laughter of a conqueror, a high rejoicing, the winged joy of victory.
"I am no student of mental forces," said Kendric. "But to my knowledge there is nothing unusual in one's feeling the presence of another. As for any power which your mind can exert over mine, I don't admit it. It's absurd."
Contempt hardened the line of her mouth and the laughter died in her eyes.
"Man is an animal of little wisdom," she murmured as she passed by him into the room, "because he has not learned to believe the simple truth."
"If there is anything either simple or true in your establishment," he blurted out, "I haven't found it."
She went to the table before she turned. A flowing garment of deep blue fell about her; on her black hair like a coronet was a crest of many colored, tiny feathers, feathers of humming birds, he learned later; throat and arms were bare save for many blazing red and green stones, feet bare save for exquisitely wrought sandals which were held in place by little golden straps which ended in plain gold bands about the round white ankles.
Slowly she turned and faced him. But not yet did she speak. She clapped her hands together and the curtains at her right bellied out, parted and a man stepped before her, bending deeply in genuflection. No Yaqui, this time; no Mexican as Kendric knew Mexicans. The man was short, but a few inches over five feet, and remarkably heavy-muscled, the greater part of the body showing since his simple cotton tunic was wide open across the deep chest, and left arms and legs bare. The forehead was atavistically low, the cheek bones very prominent, the nose wide and flat, the lips loose and thick. The man looked brutish, cruel and ugly as he stood face to face with the noble beauty of Zoraida. And yet Kendric, glancing swiftly from one to the other, saw a peculiar resemblance. It was the eyes. This squat animal's eyes were like Zoraida's in shape though they lacked the fire of spirit and intellect; long eyes that sloped outward and upward toward the temples.
Zoraida spoke briefly, imperiously. Kendric did not understand the words though he readily recognized the tongue for one of the native Nahua dialects. Old Aztec it might have been, or Toltec.
The man saluted, bowed and was gone. But in a moment he returned, another man with him who might have been his twin brother, so strongly pronounced in each were the racial physiognomic characteristics. Between them they bore a heavy chair of black polished wood the feet of which were eagles' talons gripping and resting on crystal balls. They placed it and stood waiting for orders or dismissal. She gave both, the first in a few low words in the same ancient tongue, the latter with a gesture. They bowed and disappeared. Zoraida, one hand resting upon the stand near the jewel glowing upon the transparent stem, sank gracefully into the seat.
"All very imposing," muttered Kendric. "But if you have anything to say to me I am waiting."
From somewhere in the room a parrot which he had not seen until now and which had no doubt been released by one of her low-browed henchmen behind the curtains, flew by Kendric's head and perched balancing upon an arm of her chair. Idly she put out her hand, stroking the bright feathers. From somewhere else, startling the man when he saw it gliding by him on its soft pads, a big puma, ran forward, threw up its head, snarling, its tail jerking back and forth restlessly. Zoraida spoke quietly; the monster cat crept close to her chair and lay down before her, stretched out to five feet of graceful length. Zoraida set one foot lightly upon the tawny back. The big cat lay motionless, its eyes steady and unwinking upon Kendric.
He felt himself strangely impressed though he sought to argue with himself that here was but more absurdity from an empty-headed girl who had the money and the power to unleash her extravagant desires. But since everything about him was stamped with the barbaric, even to the oblique-eyed woman staring boldly at him; since everything in the exotic atmosphere was in keeping, even to the parrot at her elbow and the heavy, honey-sweet perfume filling the room, he was unable to shake off, as he wished to, the impression made upon him.
"In your heart," said Zoraida gravely, "you censure me for empty by-play, you accuse me of vain trifling. You are wrong, Senor Americano! And soon you will know you are wrong. There is no woman throughout the wide sweep of my country or yours who has the work to do that I have to do; the destiny to fulfil; or the power to wrest from the gods that which she would have. And will have!"
Steadfast conviction, fearlessly voiced, rang through her speech. What she said she meant with all of the fiery ardor of her being. Her words spoke her thought. Whatever the fate which she judged was hers to fulfil, she accepted it with a fervor not unlike some ecstatic religious devotion. Of all this he was confident on the instant; she might surround herself with colorful accessories but her purpose was none the less serious.
"Symbols, if you like," she said carelessly—she had been staring at him profoundly and well might have glimpsed something of his train of thought—"as are statues and pictures symbols in the Roman church. My bright colored bird is older now than you will be, or I, when we die. Age, bright feathers and chatter! My puma means much to me that you would not understand, being of another race. Further, did you or another lift a hand against his mistress he would tear out your throat."
"You have had me brought here for some purpose?" said Kendric.
She sat forward, straight in her chair, her two hands gripping the carved arms.
"Did I not tell you when first we spoke together that I had use for you? Since then have I not sent myself into your thoughts many times? Did I not come to you, that you should remember, on the boat that brought you here?"
"I am no man for mysteries," he said. "Tell me: Did you somehow get aboard the New Moon at San Diego? Or did my fancy play me a trick?"
"You ask me questions!" she mocked. "When you would believe what pleased you, no matter what word I spoke! If I said that across the miles, over mountain and desert and water I sent my spirit to you—would you believe?"
"No. Not when there are other readier explanations."
She raised a quick hand and pointed to the parrot.
"Chatter! Questions put when you do not expect an answer. A hundred years of words and only a red and yellow bundle of feathers at the end. It is deeds we want, Senor Americano, you and I!"
He returned her look steadily.
"Then tell me what you want of me," he said. "And in one word I'll give you yes or no."
"That is man talk!" she cried. "And yet, Senor Jim Kendric, there come times even in a man's life when the yes or no is spoken for him." She paused for him to drink in all that her statement meant. Then, when he remained silent, his eyes hostile upon hers, she went on, her speech quick and passionate. "There are great happenings on foot, American. There will be war and death; there will be tearing down and building up. And it is I who will direct and it is you who will take my orders and make them law. And in the end I shall be a Zoraida whom the world shall know and you shall be a mighty man, the man of Mexico."
"Fine words!" It was his time to mock, his time to glance at the ancient bird.
"Yes, Jim Kendric. Fine words and more since they are great truths. Lest you think Zoraida Castelmar a girl of mad fancies, I will speak freely with you. Since all depends on me and it is in my mind that much will depend on you. And why on you? Why have I put my hand out upon you, a foreigner? Because you are such a man as I would make were I God; a man strong and fearless and masterful; a man trustworthy to the death when his word is given and his honor is at stake. No, I do not judge you alone by what happened at Ortega's gambling house. But that fitted in with all I knew of you. Where else can I find a man to lose ten thousand, twenty thousand dollars, all that he has and think no more of the matter than of a cigaret paper that the wind has blown from his hands? I have heard of you, Jim Kendric, and I have said to myself: 'Is there such a man? I know none like him!' Then I went for myself, saw for myself, judged for myself. And now I offer you what I offer no other man and what no other mortal can offer you."
"You give me a pretty clean bill of health," he said quietly. "Now what follows?"
"This: There will be war in Mexico——"
"No new thing," he cut in. "There is always war in Mexico."
"And I will direct that war," she went on serenely, "from this chair in this room and from elsewhere. Lower California will raise its own standard and it will be my standard. Already has word stirred Sonora into restlessness and a beginning of activity; already is Chihuahua armed and eager. Already have the thousands of Yaquis listened and agreed; already have I made them large promises of ancient tribal lands restored and money. A Yaqui guards my door yonder. But you did not know that he was the son of Chief Pima, nor that in ten days the son will be Chief after having served in the household of Zoraida! And Sonora and Chihuahua and the Yaqui tribes are pledged to one thing: To an independent Lower California over which I shall rule."
"Wild schemes," muttered Kendric. "Foredoomed, like other mad schemes in Mexico. And if your great plannings are feasible, which I very much doubt, has your feathered companion failed to remind you that talk with a stranger is rash?"
"You are no stranger," she said coolly. "Nor have I spoken a word to you that is not known already to all about me. My cousin, Ruiz Rios, whom I distrust and detest; the Captain Escobar who is a small man and a murderer, the other men whom I have gathered about me, they all know, for in this, if in nothing else, I can trust them all."
"But if I went away," he asked, "and talked?"
"You are not going away."
He lifted his brows quickly at that.
"I go where I please," he reminded her. "When I please. I am my own man, Senorita Castelmar."
"Large words." She smiled at him curiously.
"You mean that my going would be interfered with?"
"I mean that you may make yourself free of the house; that you may walk in the gardens; that, if you sought to pass the outer wall, you would be detained. You remain my prisoner, Senor Kendric, until you become my trusted captain!"
"You're a devilish hospitable hostess," he remarked. She was watching him shrewdly, interested to see just how he would accept her ultimatum. He returned her look with clear, untroubled eyes.
"You will think of what I have told you," she said slowly. "My wealth is very great; the fertile lands which I have inherited and those which I have purchased, embrace hundreds of thousands of acres; the barren lands which are mine, desert and mountain, stretch mile after mile. There is no power like mine in all Mexico, though until now it has lain hidden, giving no sign. It is in my heart to make you a rich man and, what you like more, Jim Kendric, a man to play the biggest of all games and for the biggest of all stakes. And further—further——"
"Further?" He laughed. "What comes after all that, Queen Zoraida?"
"Look into my eyes," she said softly. "Look deep."
He looked and though to him were women unread books, at last a slow flush crept up into his cheeks. For now neither he nor any other man could have failed to understand the silent speech of Zoraida's eyes. It was as though she invited him not so much to look into her eyes as through them and on, deep into her heart; as though these were gates, open to him, through which he might glimpse paradise. Zoraida, her look clinging to his passionately, was seeking to offer the final argument. The case would have not been plainer had she whispered with her lips: "I, even I, Zoraida, love you! You shall be my master; I your willing slave. What you will, I will also. My beauty shall be yours; my wealth, my estate, my ambitions, my power, all those shall be my lord's. Of a kingdom which shall be built you shall be king. You shall go far, you shall climb high. All because I, Zoraida, love you!"
She stood there watching him, her eyes burning into his. In her own mind were pictures made, pictures of pride and power and, as a mirror reflects the scene before it, so for a little did Jim Kendric's mind hold an image of the thing in Zoraida's. He felt her influence upon him; he felt that odd stirring of the blood; he stared back into her eyes like a man bewildered as pictures rose and swept magnificently by. He saw the red of her parted lips and heard her soft breathing; for a certain length of time—long or short he had little conception—he was motionless and speechless under her spell.
He stirred restlessly. Those visions conjured up within him, either by Zoraida's previous words and what had gone before or by the subtle workings of her mind now, were not unbroken. He thought of Twisty Barlow. Barlow had gone to her at the border town hotel; from his own experiences with her Kendric thought that he could imagine how she stood before the sailor, how she talked with him and looked at him, how in the first small point she won over him. He thought of an ancient tale of Circe and the swine. Was he a free man, a man's man or was he a woman's plaything? . . . It flashed over him again that it might be that Zoraida was mad. Even now, that he seemed to be reading her inmost soul, was she but playing the siren to his imaginings? Was this some barbaric whim of hers or was she, for the once, sincere? While appearing to be all yielding softness, was she but playing a game? Would she, at one instant swaying toward a man's arms, the next whip back from him, laughing at him?
Confused thoughts winging through his chaos of uncertainty held him where he was, his eyes staring at hers. Zoraida might read some of his mind but surely not all. What she realized was that she had offered much, everything, and that he stood, seemingly unmoved and frowned at her. Quick in all her emotions, now suddenly her cheeks flamed and the light in her eyes altered swiftly to blazing anger.
"Go!" she cried, pointing. She leaped to her feet, her eyes flaming. "By the long vanished Huitzil, I swear that I am of a mind to let those dogs, Rios and Escobar, have their way with you! What! am I Zoraida Castelmar, of a race of kings, daughter of the Montezumas, to have a man stand up before me weighing me in the balance of his two eyes? Go!"
He turned to go, eager to be out in the open air. But as he moved she called out to him:
"Wait! At least I will say my say. You and that fool Barlow came here, into my land, seeking gold. Escobar comes slinking in like a desert wolf on the same errand. Oh, I know something of it as I know something of all that goes forward from end to end of a land that will one day all be mine. Juarez died from Escobar's knife but his last gasp was for one of my agent's ears. When you or Barlow or Escobar lay hand on the treasure of the Montezumas, it will be to step aside for the last Montezuma. It will be mine!"
Fury filled her eyes. The hands at her sides clenched until the knuckles shone white through the blaze of her rings. The great cat rose and yawned, showing its glistening teeth and red throat. Its eyes were no more merciless and cruel than its mistress's. Kendric felt queerly as though he were looking back across dead centuries into ancient Mexico and upon the angry princess of the most cruel of all peoples, the blood-lusting Aztecs.
"Go!" she panted.
With one after another of the doors thrown open before him Kendric hurried away.
OF A GIRL HELD FOR RANSOM AND OF A TOAST DRUNK BY ONE INFATUATED
Jim Kendric returned straightway to the rooms allotted to him and Barlow, hoping to find his companion there. They must talk together, they must understand each the other; they must know, and know without delay, just in what and to what lengths friend could count on friend. To the uttermost, Kendric would have said a week ago. Now he only pondered the matter, recalling that in some ways Barlow did not seem quite the old mate.
He found the rooms empty and threw himself into one of the big chairs to wait. As he regarded the situation it had little enough to recommend itself to a man of his stamp. He had not the least desire to meddle in any way with Mexican revolutionary politics; upheavals would come and come again, no doubt, for thus would a great country in due time work out its own salvation. But it was no affair of his. This fomenting nucleus into which he and Barlow had come was, he estimated, foredoomed to failure and worse; one fine day Ruiz Rios and Fernando Escobar and their outlaw followings would find themselves with their backs to an adobe wall and their faces set toward a line of rifles. And Zoraida Castelmar had best think upon that, too. For turbulent times had borne women along with men to a quick undoing.
All this was clear to him. But here clarity gave way to groping uncertainty. Less than anything else did he have a stomach for being bottled up in any house in the world, Zoraida's house least of all, and denied the freedom of the open. It looked as though he, who had never done another man's command, must now do a girl's. At call she had fifty, perhaps a hundred retainers, ugly-looking devils all and no lovers of Americans who came unbidden into their country.
"There's always a way out of a mess like this," he told himself, determined to find it. "But right now I don't see it."
There was also the lodestone toward which he and Barlow had steered and which had drawn Fernando Escobar. And that amazing creature who coolly laid claim to the royal blood of the Montezumas, laid claim as well to their treasure trove. Just how any of them could make a move toward it without her knowledge baffled him. And hence, more than ever before, did his desire mount to get his own hands on it.
When presently Barlow entered, Kendric looked up at him thoughtfully. Barlow bore along with him a subdued air of excitement.
"You've just left Rios?" asked Kendric.
"Yes." Barlow came in and closed the door, looking quickly and questioningly at his friend. He appeared to hesitate, then said hurriedly: "There are big things ahead, old Headlong! Big!"
"Shoot," answered Kendric sharply. "What's the play, man?"
Again Barlow hesitated, plainly in doubt just how far Kendric might be in sympathy with him.
"It wouldn't make you mad to fill your pockets, Headlong, would it?" he asked. "Bulgin' full? And you wouldn't mind a scrap or two and a blow or two in the job, would you?"
"Watch your step, Twisty, old timer," said Kendric. "Rios has been talking revolution to you, has he? Sometimes an uprising down here is a nasty mess that it's easier to get into than out of again. And, if we get our hooks on the loot that brought us down here, why should we want to mix it with the federal government?"
Barlow began tugging at his forelock.
"I'm up a tree, Jim," he muttered at last. "Clean up a tree."
"Then look out you light on your feet instead of on your head when you decide to come down. It would be easy to make a mistake right now."
"Yes, easy; dead easy.—Old Headlong counseling caution!" Barlow laughed but with little genuine mirth.
"I want a straight talk with you, Twisty," said Kendric soberly. "I for one don't like the lay-out here and I'm going to break for the open. You and I have fallen among a pack of damned thieves, to draw it mild. It strikes me we'd better understand each other."
"Right!" cried Barlow eagerly. "Let's talk straight from the shoulder."
But events, or rather Zoraida Castelmar who sought to usurp destiny's prerogatives here, ruled otherwise. There came a quiet rap at the door, then the voice of one of the housemaids, saying:
"La Senorita Zoraida desires immediately to speak with Senor Barlow."
Barlow, just easing himself into a chair, jumped up.
"Coming," he called.
Kendric, too, sprang up, his hand locking hard upon Barlow's arm.
"Twisty," he said, "hold on a minute. The house isn't on fire."
"Well?" Barlow's impatience glared out of his eyes. "What is it?"
"I've got a very large, life-sized suspicion that it would be just as well if you sent back word you couldn't come. At least, not until we've had our talk."
"She said immediately," said Barlow. And then, "You don't want me to see her? Why?"
"Because, it you want to know, she isn't good for you. She'll seek to draw you in on this fool scheme of hers, and if you don't look out you'll do just what she says do. There never was a mere woman like her. She's uncanny, man! She will give you the same line of mad talk she gave me, she will make you the same sorts of offers——"
"You've seen her then? Tonight? While I was out with Rios you were with her?"
"Yes. And not because I found any pleasure in her company, either."
Barlow jerked free, laughing his disbelief, his look at once unpleasant and suspicious.
"Tell that to the marines," he jeered. He threw the door open and went out. In the hall Kendric could hear his steps sounding quick and eager. Kendric returned to his chair, perplexed. Then again he sprang up, throwing out his hands, shaking his shoulders as though to rid them of a troublesome weight.
"Too much thinking isn't good for a man," he told himself lightly. "The game's made; let her roll!"
He took a cigar from the table, lighted it and passed through the bath and adjoining room. A door opened to the outer corridor. He stepped out upon the flagstones and strolled down the aisle flanked on one side by the adobe wall of the house, on the other by the white columns and arches. The night was fine, clear and starlit; the fragrance of a thousand flowers lay heavy upon the-air; the babble of the outdoor fountain made merry music. He left the stone floor for the graveled driveway and put his head back to send a little puff of smoke upward toward the flash of stars.
"It's a good old land, at that," he mused. "Big and clean and wide open."
He strolled on, looking to right and left. Before him the gardens appeared deserted. But there were patches of inpenetrable blackness under the wider flung trees, and it seemed likely, from what Zoraida had said, that some of her rabble were watching him. If so, he deemed it as well to know for certain. So he kept straight on toward the whitewashed wall glimpsed through the foliage. He came to it and stopped; it was little higher than his head and would be no obstacle in itself. He shot out his hands, gripped the top and went up.
And still no one to dispute his right to do as he pleased. He sat for a moment atop the wall, looking about him curiously. He marked that at each of the corners of the enclosure to be seen from where he sat, was a little square tower rising a dozen feet higher than the wall. In each tower a lamp burned. From the nearest one came the voices of two men. Tied near this tower and outside the wall were two horses; he saw them vaguely and heard the clink of bridle chains. Saddled horses. There would be saddled horses at each of the four towers; night and day, if Zoraida's talk were not mere boasting. The temptation to know just how strict was the guard kept moved him to drop to the ground, on the outside of the wall. He moved quickly, but his feet had not struck the grass when a sharp whistle cut through the still night. The whistle came from somewhere in the shadows within the enclosure.
Kendric stood stone still. But had he been ready for flight he knew now that he could not have gone twenty paces before they stopped him. Where he had heard the voices of two men he now heard an overturned chair, jingle of spur and thud of boots, a sharp command. He saw two figures run out on the wall and leap down into the saddles just below. And he knew that in the other towers there had been like readiness and like action. For already he saw four mounted men and needed no telling that each man carried a rifle.
He climbed back on the wall, his curiosity for the moment satisfied. And there he sat until one of the riders galloped to him. The man came close and said gruffly:
"It is not permitted to cross the wall. It would be best if Senor Americano remembered. And went back to the house."
"Right-o!" agreed Kendric cheerily. "I just wanted to be sure, compadre," and he turned and dropped back into the garden. "She holds the cards, ace, face and trump!" he conceded sweepingly. "But the game's to play." And, as again he strolled along the driveway, his thoughts were not unpleasant. For what had he come adventuring into Lower California if he weren't ready for what the day might bring? The situation had its zest. He wondered how many men were hidden about the garden, like the fellow who had watched him and whistled? How many were watching him now? He reflected as he walked on, but his conjectures were not so deep as to make him oblivious of his cigar. On the whole, for the night, he was content.
Just as he turned the corner of the house a rider, coming from the double front gate, raced down the driveway and flung himself to the ground. A figure stepped out from the shadowy corridor and Kendric was near enough to recognize the second figure as that of Captain Escobar, even before he heard his sharp:
"Is that you, Ramorez? What luck?"
"Si, Senor Capitan. It is Ramorez. And the luck is fine!"
"You have her?" Escobar's tone was exultant.
"Just outside. Sancho is bringing her. I am here for orders. Where shall we take her?"
"Here. Into the house. Senorita Castelmar knows everything and is with us."
Ramorez swung back up into the saddle and spurred away, gone into the darkness under the trees toward the gate. Kendric stood where he was, receptive for any bit of understanding which might be vouchsafed him. He was satisfied with his position in the shadows; glad when Escobar stepped out so that the lamp light from within streamed across his face. Actually the man's hard eyes gloated.
It was only a moment until Ramorez returned, another man riding knee and knee with him, a led horse following them. It was this animal and its rider that held Kendric's eyes. In the saddle was what appeared a weary little figure, drooping forward, clutching miserably at the horn of the saddle with both hands. As she came nearer and there was more light he saw the bowed head, made out that it was hatless, even saw how the hair was all tumbled and ready to fall about her shoulders.
"You will get down, senorita." It was Escobar's voice, gloating like his eyes.
The listless figure in the saddle made no reply, seemed bereft of any volition of its own. As Ramorez put up his hands to help her, she came down stiffly and stood stiffly, looking about her. Kendric, to see better, came on emerging from the shadows and stood, leaning against the wall, drawing slowly at his cigar and awaiting the end of the scene. So now, for the first time, he saw the girl's face as she lifted it to look despairingly around.
"Oh," she cried suddenly, a catch in her voice, throwing out her two arms toward Escobar. "Please, please let me go!"
The hair was falling about her face; she shook it back, still standing with her arms outflung imploringly. Kendric frowned. The girl was too fair for a Mexican; her hair in the lamp light was less dark than black and might well be brown; her speech was the speech of one of his own country.
"An American girl!" he marveled. "These dirty devils have laid their hands on an American girl! And just a kid, at that."
With her hair down, with a trembling "Please" upon her lips, she did not look sixteen.
"I am so tired," she begged; "I am so frightened. Won't you let me go? Please?"
Kendric fully expected her to break into tears, so heartbroken was her attitude, so halting were her few supplicating words. A spurt of anger flared up in his heart; to be harsh with her was like hurting a child. And yet he held resolutely back from interference. As yet no rude hand was being laid on her and it would be better if she went into the house quietly than if he should raise a flurry of wild hope in her frightened breast and evoke an outpouring of terrified pleadings, all to no avail. What he would have to say were best said to Escobar alone.
Slowly her arms dropped to her sides. Her look went from face to face, resting longest on Jim Kendric's. He kept his lips tight about his cigar, shutting back any word to raise false hope just yet. The result was that the girl turned from him with a little shudder, seeing in him but another oppressor. She sighed wearily and, walking stiffly, passed to the door flung open by Ramorez and into the house. Escobar was following her when Kendric called to him. The bandit captain muttered but came back into the yard.
"Well, senor?" he demanded impudently. "What have you to say to me?"
"Who is that girl?" asked Kendric. "And what are you doing with her?"
Escobar laughed his open insolence.
"So you are interested? Pretty, like a flower, no? Well, she is not for you, Senor Americano, though she is of your own country. She is the daughter of a rich gentleman named Gordon, if you would know. Her papa calls her Betty and is very fond of her. Him I have let go back to the United States. That he may send me twenty-five thousand dollars for Senorita Betty. Are there other questions, senor?"
"You've got a cursed high hand, Captain Escobar," muttered Kendric. "But let me tell you something: If you touch a hair of that poor little kid's head I'll shoot six holes square through your dirty heart." And he passed by Escobar and went into the house.
He meant to tell the daughter of Gordon that he, too, was an American; that Barlow, another American, was on the job; that, somehow, they would see her through. But he was given only a fleeting glimpse of her as she passed out through a door across the room, escorted by the grave-eyed young woman who an hour ago had warned him not to anger Zoraida. He saw Betty Gordon's face distinctly now; she was fair, her hair was brown, he thought her eyes were gray. But before he could call to her she was gone, clinging to the arm of Zoraida's maid.
"Poor little kid," muttered Kendric, staring after her. "I'd give my hat to have her on a horse, scooting for the New Moon. All alone among these pirates, with her dad the Lord knows where trying to dig up twenty-five thousand dollars for her!"
At least she was no doubt well enough off for the night. She looked too tired to lie awake long, no matter what her distress. He returned to his rooms and sat down to wait again for Barlow.
When at last Barlow came Kendric knew on the instant what success Zoraida had had with him. Twisty's eyes were shining; his head was up; he walked briskly like a man with his plans made and his heart in them.
"You poor boob," muttered Kendric disgustedly. "Once you let a woman get her knife in your heart you're done for."
Barlow swept up the brandy bottle and filled a glass brim full.
"To Zoraida, Queen of Lower California!" he cried ringingly. He drank and smashed the glass upon the floor.
Kendric sighed and shook his head hopelessly. And thanked God that he had never been the man to go mad over a pretty face.
HOW A MAN MAY CARRY A MESSAGE AND NOT KNOW HIMSELF TO BE A MESSENGER
"There's no call for bad blood between you and me, Jim," said Barlow, plainly ill at his ease. "We've always been friends; let's stay friends. If we can't pull together in the deal that's comin', why, let's just split our trail two ways and let it go at that."
"Fair enough," cried Kendric heartily. His companion thrust out a hand; Kendric took it warmly. Barlow looked relieved.
"And," continued the sailor, "there's no sense forgettin' what we ran into this port for in the first place. There's the loot; no matter how or when we come at it, both together or single, we split it even?"
"Fair again. The old-time Barlow talking."
"All I've held out on you, Jim, is the exact location, so far as I know it. I'll spill that to you now, best I can. Then you can play out your string your way and I can play it out my way. As Juarez tipped me off, you've got three peaks to sail by; whether it's the three we saw first or the ones right off here, back of the house, I don't know any more than you do. But it ought to be easy tellin' when a man's on the spot. The middle peak ought to be a good fifty feet higher than the others and flat lookin' on top. In a ravine, between the tall boy and the one at the left, Juarez said there was a lot of scrub trees and brush. He said plow through the brush, keepin' to the up edge when you can get to it, until you come to about the middle of the patch. There a man would find a lot of loose rock, boulders that looked like they'd slid off the mountain. This rock, and the Lord knows how much of it there is, covers the hole that the old priest's writin' said that loot was in. And that's the yarn, every damn' word of it."
"If it's the place back of the house," said Kendric, "it'll be a night job, all of it. It's not a half mile off and plain sight from here. Now, what's the likelihood of Escobar having been there ahead of us?"
"Escobar's out of the runnin'." Barlow's eyes glinted with his satisfaction. "He's corked up here tighter'n a fly in a bottle. He isn't allowed to stick nose outside the walls after dark; and he isn't allowed to ride out of sight in the daytime. Those are little Escobar's orders. And, by cracky, I'll bet he minds 'em."
"Who told you all that?"
"What's she close-herding him for?"
"Doesn't trust him; can you blame her? She's takin' her chances, and she knows it, plannin' the big things ahead. And she's not missin' a bet."
"And more," remarked Kendric drily, "she hankers for the loot herself?"
"She wouldn't know a thing about it," protested Barlow. "Escobar would keep his mouth shut; he's wise hog enough for that."
"But she does know, Twisty. She knows that Escobar knifed Juarez; she knows why; she knows pretty nearly as much about the thing as we know."
"She knows a lot of things," mused Barlow. But he shook his head: "She's shootin' high, Headlong; no penny-ante game for her! Not that what we're lookin' for sounds little; but it ain't in her path and she's not turnin' aside for anything. And she's the richest lady in Mexico right now. Those pearls of hers, man, are worth over a hundred thousand dollars, or I'm a fool. I saw them again tonight; she let me have them in my hands. And that ruby; did you see it? Why, kings can't sport stones like that in their best Sunday crowns."
"She contends that she is a descendent of the old Mexican kings," offered Kendric coolly. "And any treasure, left by the Montezumas, she claims by right of inheritance!"
"She couldn't get across with a claim like that, could she? Not in any law court, Jim?"
"Not unless the jurors were all men and she could get them off alone, one at a time, and whisper in their ears," grunted Kendric.
Barlow laughed and they dropped the subject. Kendric told Barlow what he had learned during the evening; how the walls were sentinelled and how at the present moment under the same roof with them was an American girl, held for ransom.
"And, according to Escobar," he concluded, watching his old friend's face, "the trick is put over with the connivance of Miss Castelmar. This would seem to be one of the headquarters of the great national game!"
"Well?" snapped the sailor. "What of it? If you can get away with a game like that it pays big and fast. And who the devil sent you and me down this way to preach righteousness? It's their business—but, cut-throat cur that that little bandit hop o' my thumb is, I don't believe a word he says."
"And if you did believe, it would be just the same?" There was a queer note in his voice. "Well, Twisty, old mate, I guess you've said it. Our trail forks. Good night."
"Good night," growled Barlow. Each went into his own bedroom; the doors closed after them.
For a couple of hours Kendric sat in the dark by his window, staring out into the gardens, pondering. Of two things he was certain: He was not going to remain shut up in the Hacienda Montezuma if there was a way to break for the open; and he was not going to leave Lower California without his share of the buried treasure or at least without knowing that the tale was a lie. And, little by little, a third consideration forced itself in with its place with these matters; he could not get out of his mind the picture of the "poor little kid of a girl" in Escobar's hands. Like any other strong man, Kendric had a quick sympathy and pity for the weak and abused. Never, he thought, had he seen an individual less equipped to contend with such forces than was the little American girl.
"What I'd like," he thought longingly, "would be to make a break for the border; to round up about twenty of the boys and to swoop down on this place like a gale out of hell! Clean 'em for fair, pick the little Gordon girl up and race back to the border with her. If it wasn't so blamed far——"
But he realized, even while he let his angry fancies run, that he was dreaming impossibilities. He knew, also, that to take up the matter through the regular diplomatic channels would be a process too infinitely slow to suit the situation. It was either a single-handed job for Jim Kendric, or else it was up to the girl's father to pay down the twenty-five thousand dollars.
"I'd give a good deal for a talk with old Bruce West," he told himself. "His outfit lies close in to these diggings; wonder if he has any American boys working for him? Why, a dozen of us, or a half dozen, would stand this place on end! Yes; I'd like to see Bruce."
A score of reasons flocked to him why it was desirable to see young West. The boy was a friend, and it would be a joy just to grip him by the hand again after three years; Bruce had written to him to come and now that events had led him so near, he should grant the request; Bruce was having his own troubles, no doubt against the lawlessness of Escobar, Rios and the rest. And finally, he and Bruce might work things together so that both should derive benefit. Bruce might be in a position to befriend Gordon's little daughter.
So much did Kendric dwell on the subject that night that it claimed his first thoughts when he woke in the early dawn. And therefore, when Zoraida's message was handed to him at the breakfast table, he stared at it with puzzled eyes asking himself if the amazing creature had read his thoughts through thick walls of adobe.
The message was typewritten, even to the signature. It said:
"No doubt Senor Kendric would like to see his old friend Senor West. If he will only set his signature below what follows he will be given a horse, permission to ride and instructions as to direction. Zoraida."
And below were the words, with date and a dotted line for him to sign:
"I pledge my word, as a gentleman, to Zoraida Castelmar, that I will return to her at Hacienda Montezuma not later than daybreak twenty-four hours from now. . . ."
"A take or leave proposition, clean cut," he comprehended promptly. And as promptly he decided to take it. The maid who had brought him the paper was offering pen and ink. He accepted and wrote swiftly: "Jim Kendric."
"Has Barlow breakfasted yet?" he asked, returning to his coffee.
"An hour ago, Senor. He has gone out."
"No, senor. With La Senorita Zoraida."
"Hm," said Kendric. "And Rios? And Escobar?"
"Senor Rios went to bed late; it is his custom, senor." The girl looked as though she could tell him more but, with a quick glance over her shoulder, contented herself with saying only: "Senor Escobar is with the men outside."
"And the American girl? Miss Gordon?"
"Asleep still, senor."
"Has Escobar been near her?"
"No, senor. She has been alone except for me and Rosita. La pobrecita," she added, almost in a whisper. "She is so frightened."
"Be kind to her," said Kendric. He, too, looked over his shoulder. In his pocket were the few fifty-dollar bills left to him from his oil shares. "What is your name?"
"Juanita," she told him.
"All right, Juanita; take this." He slipped a bill along the tablecloth toward her. "Give Rosita half, you keep half. And be kind to Miss Gordon."
"Oh, senor!" she cried, as in protest. But she took the bank note. Kendric felt better for the transaction; he finished his breakfast with rare appetite.
"Now," he cried, jumping up, "for the horse. Is it ready?"
Juanita, the folded paper in her hands, went with him to the door.
"The horse is ready, Senor Americano," she told him. "It remains only for me to tell the boy that you have promised to return."
Sure enough, pawing the gravel in front of the house, half jerking off his feet the mestizo holding it, was a tall, rangy sorrel horse looking as fine an animal as any man in a hurry could wish.
"Senor Kendric will ride, Pedro," called Juanita. "Give him the horse."
Pedro gave the reins over to Kendric and turned away toward the stables. Kendric swung up into the saddle and for a moment curbed the big sorrel's dash toward the gates, to say meditatively to Juanita:
"If I took that paper away from you and made a run for it, what then?"
A look of fear leaped into the girl's dark eyes and she drew hastily back, clutching the paper to her breast.
"Senor!" she cried, breathless and aghast. "You would not! She—she would kill me!"
"She would what?" he scowled.
"She would give me to her cat, her terrible, terrible cat, to play with!" Juanita shivered, and drew still further back. "With my life I must guard this paper until it goes from my hand into her hand."
He laughed his disbelief and gave his horse his head at last. They shot away through the shrubberry; the horse slid to a standstill before the closed gate. Of the man smoking a cigaret before it Kendric said curtly:
"You are to let me through. And direct me to Bruce West's ranch."
"Si, senor." The man opened the gate. "It is yonder; up the valley. The trail will carry you up over the mountain; there are piled stones to mark the way to the pass. In an hour, from the other side of the ridge, you will see houses. Ten miles from there."
Kendric rode through and as he did so his figure straightened in the saddle, his shoulders squared, he put up his head. Free and in the open, if only for twenty-four hours. And with a horse, a real horse, between his knees. He looked off to the left to Barlow's three peaks; the sun was gilding the top of the tallest and it was unquestionable that it was flat-topped. But he did not dwell long upon buried gold nor yet on the query which suggested itself: "Where were Barlow and Zoraida riding so early?" The immediate present and the immediate surroundings were all that he cared to interest himself in on a day like this.
The man at the gate had said it was ten miles from the far side of the ridge to the Bruce West ranch house; the entire distance, therefore, from the Hacienda Montezuma would be about double that distance. The trail, once he reached the hills, was a dilatory, leisurely affair, thoroughly Mexican; it sought out the gentlest slope always and appeared in no haste to arrive anywhere. Well, his mood could be made to suit the trail's; he was in no hurry, having all day for his talk with young West.
The higher he rose above the floor of Zoraida's grassy valley the steeper did his trail become, flanked with cliffs, at times looking too sheer ahead for a horse. But always the path twisted between the boulders and found the possible way up. So he came into a splendid solitude, a region of naked rocks, of a few windblown trees, of little open level spaces grown up with dry brush and wiry grass; of defiles through stone-bound ways that were so narrow two men could not have ridden through them abreast, so crooked that a man often could not see ten steps ahead or ten steps behind, so deep that he must throw his head far back to see the barren cliff tops above him. Strips of sky, seen thus, were deep, deep blue.
It was not at all strange, he told himself during one of his meditative moments while his horse climbed valiantly, that Zoraida should know of his friendship with Bruce West, nor that she should understand his natural desire to ride where he was going this morning. Everyone in the border town had known of his letter at the postoffice; further, it was not in the least unlikely that Senorita Castelmar would know of the letter when it was dropped into the slot at the Mexican postoffice. What did strike him as odd, however, was that she should consent to his leaving the ranch, realizing that he knew much of her own plans and would doubtless speak freely of them and of the American girl held in her house for ransom.
"Not only was she willing for me to see Bruce," he decided; "she wanted me to. Why?"
His trail led him into the last narrow defile to be encountered before reaching the summit. So closely did the rocks press in on each side that often his tapaderos brushed the sheer wall. He made a turn, none too wide for the body of his horse and drew sudden rein, looking into two rifle barrels. The men covering him lay a dozen feet above his head upon a bare, flat rock. He could see only the hands upon their guns, the heads under their tall hats, the shoulders. But he was near enough to mark a business-like look in the hard black eyes.
"You've got the drop on me, companeros," he said lightly. "What's the game?"
A third man appeared on foot in the trail before him, stepping out from behind a shoulder of rock. He came on until he could have put out a hand to the sorrel's reins.
"Where do you ride so early?" asked the man on foot, his voice quiet but vaguely hostile. "On what errand?"
"What business is it of yours, my friend?" returned Kendric.
"I know the horse," called one of the figures above. "It is El Rey, from the stables of La Senorita."
"Then the rider must have a message. Or a sign. Or he has stolen the horse, which would go bad with him!"
"Curse you and your signs and messages," cried Kendric hotly. "It's a free country and I ride where I please."
The man before him only smiled.
"Let me look at your saddle strings," he said.
Kendric stared wonderingly; was the fellow insane? What in the name of folly did he mean by a thing like this? Surely not just the opportunity to draw close enough to strike with a knife; the rifles above made such strategy useless.
So he sat still and contented himself with watching. The man came a step closer, twisted El Rey's head aside, pressed close and looked at the rawhide strings on one side of the saddle. Then he moved to the other side and repeated the process. Immediately he drew back, lifting his hat widely.
"Pass on, senor," he said courteously. "Viva La Senorita!"
Kendric spurred by him and rode on, passing abruptly out of a wilderness of tumbled boulders into a grassy flat. He turned in the saddle; nowhere was there sign of another than himself upon the mountain. Curiously he looked at his saddle strings; in one of them a slit had been made through which the end of the string had been passed; a double knot had been tied just below the slit. In no other particular was any one of the strings in the least noteworthy.
"As good a way to carry a message as any," he grunted. "With not even the messenger aware of the tidings he brings!"
The incident impressed him deeply. Zoraida, at the game she played, was in deadly earnest. Her commands went far and through many channels and were obeyed. The passes through the mountains were in her hands. The sunlight fell warm and golden about him; the full morning was serene; a stillness as of ineffable peace lay across the solitudes. And yet he felt that the placid promise was a lie; that the laughing loveliness of the day was but a mask covering much strife. In the full light he moved on not unlike a man groping in absolute darkness, uncertain of the path he trod, suspicious of pitfalls, knowing only that his direction was in hands other than his own. Hands that looked soft and that were relentless; hands that blazed with barbaric jewels. There had been a knot in a rawhide string, and a bandit in the mountains had lifted his hat and had said simply: "Long live La Senorita!"
WHICH BEGINS WITH A LITTLE SONG AND ENDS WITH TROUBLE BETWEEN FRIENDS
Speculation at this stage was profitless and the day was perfect. Kendric told himself critically that he was growing fanciful; he had been cooped up too much. First on board the schooner New Moon, then in four walls of a house. What he needed was day after day, stood on end, like this. If he didn't look out he'd be growing nerves next. He grinned widely at the remote possibility, pushed his hat far back and rode on. And by the time his horse had carried him to the far edge of the level land and to the first slope of the downward pitch, he was singing contentedly to himself and his horse and all the world that cared to listen.
Far below, far ahead, he caught his first glimpse of the ranch houses marking the Bruce West holdings. From the heights his eye ran down into valley lands that stretched wide and far away, rolling, grassy, with occasional clumps of trees where there were water holes. A valley by no means so prodigally watered as Zoraida's, but none the less an estate to put a sparkle into a man's eyes. It was large, it was sufficiently level and fertile; above aught else it was remote. It gave the impression of a great, calm aloofness from the outside world of traffic and congestion; it lay, mile after mile, sufficient unto itself, a place for a lover of the outdoors to make his home. No wonder that young West had gone wild over it. Hills and mountains shut it in, rising to the sky lines like walls actually sustaining the blue cloudless void. As Jim Kendric rode on and down his old song, his own song, found its way to his lips.
"Where skies are blue And the earth is wide And it's only you And the mountainside!"
"Twenty miles between shacks," he considered approvingly. "And never a line fence to cut your way through. It's near paradise, this land, wherever it isn't just fair hell. No half way business; no maudlin make-believe." But all of a sudden his face darkened. "Poor little kid," he said. "If Bruce could only loan me half a dozen ready-mixed, rough and ready, border cowboys; Californians, Arizonans and Texans!"
His hopes of this were not large at any time; when he came upon the first of Bruce West's riders they vanished entirely. An Indian, or half breed at the best, ragged as to black stringy hair, hard visaged, stony eyed. Kendric called to him and the rider turned in his saddle and waited. And for answer to the question: "Where's the Old Man? Bruce West?" the answer was a hand lifted lazily to point up valley and silence.
"Gracias, amigo," laughed Kendric and rode on.
There was not a more amazed man in all Lower California when Jim Kendric rode up to him. Bruce West was out with two of his men driving a herd of young, wild-looking horses down toward the corrals beyond the house. For an instant his blue eyes stared incredulously; then they filled with shining joy. He swept off his broad hat to wave it wildly about his head; he came swooping down on Kendric as though he had a suspicion that his visitor had it in his head to whirl and make a bolt for the mountains; he whooped gleefully.
"Old Jim Kendric!" he shouted. "Old Headlong Jim! Old r'arin', tearin', ramblin', rovin', hell-for-leather Kendric! Oh, mama! Man, I'm glad to see you!"
Only a youngster, was Bruce West, but manly for all that, who wore his heart on his sleeve, his honesty in his eyes and who would rather frolic than fight but would rather fight than do nothing. When last Kendric had seen him, Bruce was nursing his first mustache and glorying in the triumphant fact that soon he would be old enough to vote; now, barely past twenty-three, he looked a trifle thinner than his former hundred and ninety pounds but never a second older. He was a boy with blue eyes and yellow hair and a profound adoration for all that Jim Kendric stood for in his eager eyes.
"Why all the war paint, Baby Blue-eyes?" Kendric asked as they shook hands. For under Bruce's knee was strapped a rifle and a big army revolver rode at his saddle horn.
Bruce laughed, his mood having no place for frowns.
"Not just for ornament, old joy-bringer," he retorted. "Using 'em every now and then. I'm in deep here, Jim, with every cent I've got and every hope of big things. Times, a man has to shoot his way out into the clear or go to the wall. Hey, Gaucho!" he called, turning in his saddle. "You and Tony haze the ponies in to the corrals. And tell Castro we've got the King of Spain with us for grub and to put on the best on the ranch; we'll blow in about noon. Come ahead, Jim; I'll show you the finest lay-out of a cow outfit you ever trailed your eye across."
They rode, saw everything, both acreage and water and stock, and talked; for the most part Bruce did the talking, speaking with quick enthusiasm of what he had, what he had done, what he meant to accomplish yet in spite of obstacles. He had bought outright some six thousand acres, expending for them and what low-bred stock they fed all of his inherited capital. From the nearest bank, at El Ojo, he had borrowed heavily, mortgaging his outfit. With the proceeds he had leased adjoining lands so that now his stock grazed over ten thousand acres; he had also bought and imported a finer strain of cattle. With the market what it was he was bound to make his fortune, hand over fist——
"If they'd only leave me alone!" he exclaimed hotly.
"They?" queried Kendric.
"Of course the country is unsettled," explained the boy. "Ever since I came into it there has been one sort or another of unrest. When it isn't outright revolution it's politics and that's pretty near the same thing. There are prowling bands of outlaws, calling themselves soldiers, that the authorities can't reach. Look at those mountains over there! What government that has to give half its time or more to watching its own step, can manage to ferret out every nest of highwaymen in every canon? Those boys are my big trouble, Jim! A raid from them is always on the books and there are times when I'm pretty near ready to throw up the sponge and drift. But it's a great land; a great land. And now you're with me!" His eyes shone. "I'll make you any sort of a proposition you call for, Jim, and together we'll make history. Not to mention barrels of money."
Kendric's ever-ready imagination was snared. But he was in no position to forget that he had other fish to fry.
"What do you know of your neighbors?" he asked.
"Not much," admitted Bruce. "And yet enough to sabe what you're driving at. The nearest are twenty miles away, at the Montezuma ranch. The boss of the outfit is your old friend Ruiz Rios. I told you that in my letter. I haven't the dead wood on him but it's open and shut that he'd as soon chip in on a cattle-stealing deal as anything else."
"He doesn't own the Montezuma," said Kendric.
"It's the same thing. The owner is a woman, his cousin, I believe. But she's away most of the time, and Rios does as he pleases."
"You don't know the lady, then?"
"Never saw her. Don't want to, since she's got Rios blood in her."
"Let's get down and roll a smoke and talk," offered Kendric. They were on a grassy knoll; there were oaks and shade and grass for the horses. Bruce looked at him sharply, catching the sober note. But he said nothing until they were lying stretched out under the oaks, holding the tie ropes at the ends of which their horses browsed.
"Cut her loose, Jim," he said then. "What's the story?"
Kendric told him: Of his quest with Twisty Barlow; of Zoraida Castlemar and her ambitions; of his own situation in the household, a prisoner with today granted him only in exchange for his word to return by dawn; and finally of Betty Gordon.
"Good God," gasped Bruce. "They're going it that strong? Out in the open, too! And laying their paws on an American girl. Whew!"
Kendric added briefly an account of his being stopped in the pass.
"It's a fair bet," he concluded, "that your raiders get their word straight from the Montezuma ranch. Which means, straight from the lips of Zoraida Castlemar."
Bruce fell to plucking at the dry grass, frowning.
"Funny thing, it strikes me, Jim, that if you're right she should give you the chance to tip me off. How do you figure that out?"
"I haven't figured it out. Here's what we do know: When I was a dozen miles from her place and naturally would suppose that, if I chose, I was free to play out my own hand, up popped those three men; a reminder, as plain as your hat, that through their eyes I was still under the eyes of Zoraida Castlemar. Further, as innocent as a fool, I carried a message to them in a cut and tied saddle string. A message that was a passport for me; what other significance it carried, quien sabe? There's a red tassel on my horse's bridle; that might be another sign, as far as you and I know. The quirt at my saddle horn, the chains in my bridle, the saddle itself or the folds of the saddle blanket—how do we know they don't all carry her word? An easy matter, if only the signal is prearranged."
"The fine craft of the Latin mind," muttered Bruce.
"Rather the subtlety of the old Aztecs," suggested Kendric.
"But all this could have been done as well, and taking no chances, by one of the Montezuma riders."
"Of course. Hence, the one thing clear is that it was desired that I should see you. Since it was obvious that I'd tell you what I knew, that's the odd part of it."
"Why, it's madness, man! It gives us the chance, if no other, to get word back home about the little Gordon girl."
"I'd thought of that. Just how would we do it? A letter in the nearest postoffice?"
"You mean that the postmaster would be on the watch for it? And would play into her hands? Well, suppose we took the trouble to send a cowboy to some other, further postoffice? Or, by golly, to send him all the way to the border? Or, if I should go with the word myself?"
"Answer: If you sent an Indian, how much would you bet that he did not circle back to the Montezuma ranch with the letter? If you went yourself, how far do you suppose you'd ever get?"
Bruce's eyes widened.
"Do you suppose they're going that strong, Jim?"
"I don't know, Bruce. But tell me: if it seemed the wise thing to do, could you drop everything here and make a try to get through with the word?"
Bruce looked worried.
"It's my hunch," he answered, "that it would be a cheaper play for me to pay the twenty-five thousand dollar ransom and be done with it! You don't know how bad things are here, Jim; if I went and came back it would be to find that I'd been cleaned. No, I'm not exaggerating. And with the mortgage on the place, the next thing I would know was that it was foreclosed and in the end I'd lose everything I've got."
"From which I gather you don't put a whole lot of confidence in your cowboys?"
"That's the plain hell of it! Not only have I got to sleep with one eye on my stock; I've got to keep the other peeled on the men that are taking my pay. I never know what other man's pay they're taking at the same time."
"Or what woman's. Well, I imagine Miss Castlemar knows conditions as well as we do, if not a good deal better. So it looks as though she were taking no chances in letting me ride over to see you; and it remains possible that by so doing I am furthering her purpose. Though just how, is another thing I don't know."
"She must be some corker of a female," muttered Bruce. "What does she look like, Jim?"
"Tall. Young and not bad looking. Vain as a peacock and high and mighty."
"That kind of a girl makes me sick," was young Bruce's quick decision. "Let's ride back, Jim; it'll be time to eat."
As they rode slowly down toward the ranch house Bruce pointed out how, living in constant expectation of the operations of cattle and horse thieves, he took what precautions he could. The pick of his saddle horses, a dozen of them, were grazed during the day in the fields near the house and at night were brought in and stabled. A number of the finest cattle, including a thoroughbred Hereford bull and forty beautiful Hereford cows, recently purchased, were driven each evening into the nearest fields where from dark to daylight they were herded by a night rider.
"I've got to take it for granted," explained West, "that at least some of my vacqueros are on the level. I pick my best men for jobs like this. And I've always got night riders out, making their rounds from one end of the valley to the other. On top of all that I've got my dogs; look, here they come to meet us."
There were ten of them, big tan and white collies, vying with one another to come first to their master. Splendid animals all of them, but at the fore ran the most splendid of them all, the father and patriarch of his flock. It was his keen nostril and eye that was wont first to know who came; his superb strength and speed carried him well in the lead and he guarded his supremacy jealously. His sharp teeth snapped viciously when a hardy son ran close at his side and the youngster, though he snarled and bristled, swerved widely and thus fell back. They barked as they swept on, the sharp, stacatto bark of their breed.
"They're something I can trust," said Bruce proudly. "No hand but mine feeds them; if I catch a man carressing one of them he draws his pay and quits. And I go to sleep of nights reasonably sure that their din will wake me if an outsider sets foot near the home corrals. Hi! Monarch! Jump for it."
From his pocket he brought out a bit of dried beef, the "jerky" of the southwest. He held it out arm's length, sending his horse racing forward with a sudden touch of his spur. The big dog barked eagerly and launched his sinewy body into the air; the sunlight flashed back a moment from the bared sharp teeth; Monarch dropped softly back to earth with the dried beef already bolted. Bruce laughed.
At the house, like Zoraida's in the matters of age and thick, cool walls, but much smaller, they found an excellent meal awaiting them. They ate under a leafy grape arbor on the shady side of the house, half a dozen of Bruce's men sitting at table with them. Kendric regarded the men with interest, feeling that their scrutiny of him was no less painstaking. They were swarthy Indians and half-breeds and little else did he make of them. Their eyes met his, steady and unwinking, but gave no clue to what thoughts might lie back of them.
"I'll bet Bruce sleeps with a gun under his pillow," was Kendric's thought at the end of the meal.
By the well, under some shade trees in the yard, the two friends sat and smoked, watching the men laze away to the stables. Thereafter they spoke quietly of the captive in the Hacienda Montezuma.
"It's not to be thought of," said Bruce, "that a scared little kid like her is to be held that way and we sit like two bumps on a log. Looks like her troubles were up to you and me, Jim."
In the end they agreed that at least it was unthinkable that Betty Gordon would suffer any bodily injury in the same house with Zoraida and her girls; further, that the greatest access of terror had no doubt passed. One grew accustomed to pretty nearly everything. Kendric, bound by his parole to return, would seek the girl out and extend to her what comfort he could; just to know that she was not altogether friendless would bring hope and its own sort of gladness. Tonight, as soon as the men came in and it was dark, they would send Manuel, Bruce's most trustworthy man, to a forty-mile distant postoffice. He would carry with him two letters: one would be addressed to the governor of Lower California and one to friends in San Diego.
"It's about the best we can do on short notice," admitted Kendric, though he was dissatisfied. "I'm not figuring, though, that it's in the cards for me to stick overlong under the same roof with Rios and his crowd. There's the schooner down in the gulf and there's you for us to count on. Never fret, old Baby Blue-eyes; we'll have her out of that yet."
The letters were written; a little after dusk Manuel set forth, promised a double month's pay if he succeeded and in return promising by all the saints he could call to tongue that he would guard the letters with his life. From their chairs on the porch Kendric and Bruce saw the man depart. When his figure had dimned and blurred into the gathering night they still sat on, silent, watching the stars come out. Bruce had brought out cigars and the red embers glowed companionably. Presently Bruce sighed.
"It's a great little old land," he said, and the inflection of the quietly spoken words was that of affection. "A man could ask for no better, Jim. Conditions right now are damnable; you've got to scrap all along the line for what's yours. But what do you know that is worth the having that isn't worth the fighting for? And one of these fine days when Mexico settles down to business, sort of grows up and gets past the schoolboy stage, we'll have the one combination now lacking—law and order."
Kendric, who had been reflecting upon other matters, made no immediate reply. Bruce had the answer to his suggestion of a new order of things but it came from the darkness beyond his barns. There was a sudden sharp bark from one of his dogs, then a rising clamor as the whole pack broke into excited barking. From so far away that the sound barely reached them came a man's voice, exclaiming angrily. Then a rifle shot, a long, shrill whistle, shouts and the sudden thud of many racing hoofs.
Bruce West toppled over his chair and plunged through the nearest door. It was dark in the house and Kendric heard him strike against a second chair, send it crashing to the floor and dash on. In a moment Bruce was back on the porch, a rifle in each hand. One he thrust out to Kendric, muttering between his teeth,
"Raiders, or we're in luck. Damned rebel outlaws. Come on!"
He ran out into the yard, Kendric at his heels pumping a shell into the barrel. As they turned a corner of the house Bruce stopped dead in his track and Kendric bumped into him and stopped with him. Already the barns were on fire; two tall flames stabbed upward at the dark; the hissing of burning wood and fodder must have reached their ears in five minutes had the pack given no warning. In the rapidly growing light they saw the dogs where, bunched together, they snarled and snapped and broke into wilder baying.