"I had to take the two together," Dade explained, trying with better success to speak lightly. "And now, if I turn the buckskin loose, he may go back—and he may not. I was wondering—"
Manuel cut him short. "To-morrow I ride to town," he said. "I will take the caballo back with me, if that pleases the senors. I will turn him loose near the Mission, and he will go to his stable.
"The senor," he added, "was very brave. Madre de Dios! To run away with a prisoner of the Vigilantes! But they will surely kill the senor for that; the taking of the horse, that is nothing." His teeth shone briefly under his black mustache. "One can die but once," he pointed out, and emphasized his meaning by a swift glance at Jack, moodily nibbling the edge of a corn cake. "But if the horse does not please the senor—"
Dade caught his meaning and laughed a little over it. "The horse," he said, "belongs to the Committee; my friend does not."
"Si, Senor—but surely that is true. Only—" he stroked his crisp beard thoughtfully—"the senors would better go to-morrow to the patron. There the gringos dare not come. In this poor hut the senors may not be safe—for we are but three poor vaqueros when all are here. We will do our best—"
"Three vaqueros," declared Dade with fine diplomacy, "as brave as the three who live here, would equal twenty of the Committee. But we will not let it come to that."
Manuel took the flattery with a glimpse of white teeth and a deprecatory wave of the hand, and himself qualified it modestly afterward.
"With the knife—perhaps. But the gringos have guns which speak fast. Still, we would do our best—"
"Say, if he's going back to town to-morrow," spake Jack suddenly, from where he reclined in the shadow "why can't I write a note to Bill Wilson and have him send down my guns? The Captain took them away, you know; but he won't object to giving them back now!" His voice was bitter.
"The rest of them might. You seem to think that when you killed Perkins you wiped out the whole delegation—which you didn't. What was the row about; if you don't mind telling me?"
"I thought you knew," said Jack quite sincerely, which proved more than anything how absorbed he was in his own part in the affair. He shifted his head upon his clasped hands so that his eyes might rest upon the waning firelight, where the pot of frijoles, set back from supper, was still steaming languidly in the hot ashes.
"You started it yourself, two weeks ago," he announced whimsically, to lighten a little the somber tale. "If you hadn't bought that white horse from that drunken Spaniard, I'd be holding a handful of aces and kings to-night, most likely, in Bill Wilson's place. And my legs wouldn't be aching like the devil," he added, reminded anew of his troubles, when he shifted his position. "It's all your fault, bought the horse."
Dade grinned and bent to hold a twig in the coals, that he might light a cigarette. "All right, I'm the guilty party. Let's have the consequences of my evil deed," he advised, settling back on his heels and lowering an eyelid at Manuel in behalf of this humorous partner of his.
"You bought the horse and broke the Spaniard's heart and ruined his temper. And he and Sandy had a fight, and—So," he went on, after a two-minute break in the argument, "when I heard Swift sneering something about Sandy, last night, I rose up in meeting and told him and some others what I thought of 'em. I was not," he explained, "thinking nice thoughts at the time. You see, Perkins, since he got the lead, has gathered a mighty scaly bunch around him, and they've been running things to suit themselves.
"Then, Swift and two or three others held up a boy from the mines to-day, and I happened to see it. I interfered; fact is, I killed a couple of them. So they arrested both of us, went through a farce trial, and were trying to hurry me into Kingdom Come before Bill Wilson got a rescue party together, when you come along. That's all. They let the kid go—which was a good thing. I don't think they'll be down here after me. In fact, I've been thinking maybe I'd go back, in a day or so, and have it out with them."
"Yes, that's about what you'd be thinking, all right," retorted Dade unemotionally. "Sounds perfectly natural." The tone of him, being unsympathetic, precipitated an argument which flung crisp English sentences back and forth across the cabin. Manuel, when the words grew strange and took on a harsh tang which to his ear meant anger, diplomatically sought his blankets and merged into the shadow of the corner farthest from the fire and nearest the door. The senors were pleased to disagree; if they fought, he had but to dodge out into the night and neutrality. The duties of hospitality weighed hard upon Manuel during that half-hour or so.
Dade's cigarette stub, flung violently into the heart of the fire glow, seemed to Manuel a crucial point in the quarrel; he slipped back the blankets, ready to retreat at the first lunge of open warfare. He breathed relief, however, when Dade got up and stretched his arms to the dried tules overhead, and laughed a lazy surrender of the argument, if not of his opinion upon the subject.
"You're surely the most ambitious trouble-hunter I ever saw," he said, returning to his habitual humorous drawl, with the twinkle in his eyes that went with it. "Just the same, we'll not go back to the mine just yet. Till the dust settles, we're both better off down here with Don Andres Picardo. I don't want to be hung for the company I keep. Besides—"
"I'll bet ten ounces there's a senorita," hazarded. Jack maliciously. "You're like Bill Wilson; but you can preach caution till your jaws ache; you can't fool me into believing you're afraid to go back to the mine. Is there a senorita?"
"You shut up and go to sleep," snapped Dade, and afterward would not speak at all.
Manuel, in the shadow, frowned over the only words he understood—Don Andres Picardo and senorita. The senors were agreeable companions, and they were his guests. But they were gringos, after all. And if they should presume to lift desireful eyes to the little Senorita Teresa—Teresita, they called her fondly who knew her—Manuel's mustache lifted suddenly at one side at the bare possibility.
In the valley of Santa Clara, which lies cradled easily between mountains and smiles up at the sun nearly the whole year through, Spring has a winter home, wherein she dwells contentedly while the northern land is locked in the chill embrace of the Snow King. In February, unless the north wind sweeps down jealously and stays her hand, she flings a golden brocade of poppies over the green hillsides and the lower slopes which the forest has left her. Time was when she spread a deep-piled carpet of mustard over the floor of the valley as well, and watched smiling while it grew thicker and higher and the lemon-yellow blossoms vied with the orange of the poppies, until the two set all the valley aglow.
Now it was March, and the hillsides were ablaze with the poppies, and the valley floor was soft green and yellow to the knees; with the great live oaks standing grouped in stately calm, like a herd of gigantic, green elephants scattered over their feeding-ground and finding the peace of repletion with the coming of the sun.
The cabin of Manuel squatted upon a little rise of ground at the head of the valley. When Jack stood in the doorway and looked down upon the green sweep of grazing ground with the hills behind, and farther away another range facing him, he owned to himself that it was good to be there. The squalidness of the town he had left so tumultuously struck upon his memory nauseatingly.
Spring was here in the valley, even though the mountains shone white beyond. A wind had come out of the south and driven the fog back to the bay, and the sun shone warmly down upon the land. Two robins sang exultantly in the higher branches of the oak, where they had breakfasted satisfyingly upon the first of the little, green worms that gave early promise of being a pest until such time as they stiffened and clung inertly, waiting for the dainty, gray wings to grow and set them aflutter over the tree upon which they had fed. One of them dropped upon Jack's arm while he stood there and crawled aimlessly from the barren buckskin to his wrist. He flung it off mechanically. Spring was here of a truth; in the town he had not noticed her coming.
"You're right, Dade," he declared suddenly, over his shoulder. "This beats getting up at noon and going through the motions of living for twelve or fourteen hours in town. I believe I'll have Manuel get me a riding outfit, if he will. Maybe I'll take you up on that rodeo proposition. Reckon your old don will give me a job?"
"Won't cost a peso to find out," said Dade, coming out and standing beside him in the sun. "I've been talking to Manuel, and he thinks we'd better pull out right away. Valencia's got an extra saddle here, and Manuel says he'll catch a horse for you."
"I believe I'll send a letter to Bill," proposed Jack. "He'll give Manuel enough dust to buy what I need; and I ought to let him know how we made out, anyway."
A blank leaf from the little memorandum book he always carried, and a bullet for pencil—perforce, the note was brief; but it told what he wanted: gold to buy a riding outfit, his pistols which Perkins had taken from him, and news of Bill's well-being. When the paper would hold no more and hold it legibly, he folded it carefully so that it would not smudge, and gave it to his host.
"What if the Committee catches you with that buckskin, Manuel?" he asked abruptly. The risk Manuel would run had not before occurred to him. "Dade he's liable to get into trouble, if they catch him with that horse; let's turn the darned thing loose."
"Me, I shall not ride where the gringos will see me," broke in Manuel briskly. "The senors need not be alarmed. I shall keep away from El Camino Real. At the Mission I will buy what the senor desires, and I will bring it to him at the hacienda."
"Get the best they've got," Jack adjured him. "An outfit better than Dade's, if you can find one. Bill Wilson has got about twelve hundred dollars of mine; get the best if it cleans the sack." He grinned at Dade. "If you're going to bully me into turning vaquero again, I'm going to have the fun of riding in style, anyway. You've set the pace, you know. I never saw you so gaudy. Er—what did you say her name is?"
"I didn't say."
"Must be serious. Too bad." Jack shook his head dolefully. "Say, Manuel, do you know a good riata, when you see one lying around loose?"
"Si, Senor. Me, I have braided the riatas and bridles since I was so high." From the height of his measuring hand from the beaten clay beneath the oak, he proclaimed himself an infant prodigy; but Jack did not happen to be looking at him and so remained unamazed.
"Well, you ought to know something about them. Get the best riata you can find. I leave it to your judgment."
"Si, Senor. To-morrow I will bring them to you." He hesitated, his eyes dwelling curiously upon the coppery hair of this stranger, whose presence he was not quite sure that he did not resent vaguely. Dade he had come to accept as a man whose innate kindliness, which was as much a part of him as the blood in his veins, wiped out any stain of alien birth; but this blue-eyed one—"The senor himself is perhaps a judge of riatas?" he insinuated, politely veiling the quick jealousy of his nature.
"We-el-l—you bring me one ready to fall all to pieces, and I reckon I could tell it was poor, after it had stranded."
Dade laughed. "Judge of riatas? You wait till you see him with one in his hand!"
Manuel's teeth shone briefly, but the smile did not come from his heart. "Me, I shall surely bring the senor a riata worthy even of his skill," he declared sententiously, as he walked away with his bridle slung over his arm and his back very straight.
"That sounded sarcastic," commented Jack, looking after him. "What's the matter? Is the old fellow jealous?" Dade flicked his cigarette against the trunk of the oak to remove the white crown of ashes, and shook his head. "What of?" he asked bluntly. "Half your trouble, Jack, comes from looking for it. Manuel's a fine old fellow. I stayed a few days with him here when I first left town, and rode around with him. He's straight as the road to heaven, and I never heard him brag about anything, except the goodness of his 'patron,' and the things some of his friends can do. I'll have to ask you to saddle up for me, Jack; this arm of mine's pretty stiff and sore this morning. Watch how Surry's trained! You wouldn't believe some of the things he'll do."
He turned towards the horse, feeding knee-deep in grass and young mustard in the opening farther down the slope, and whistled a long, high note. The white head went up with a fling of the heavy mane, to perk ears forward at the sound. Then he turned and came towards them at a long, swinging walk that was a joy to behold.
"Do you know, I hate the way nature's trimmed down the life of a horse to a few measly years," said Dade. "A good horse you can love like a human—and fifteen years is about as long as he can expect to live and amount to anything. Surry's four now, by his teeth. In fifteen years I'll still be at my best; I'll want that horse like the very devil; and he'll be dead of old age, if he lasts that long. And a turtle," he added resentfully after a pause, "lives hundreds of years, just because the darned things aren't any good on earth!"
"Trade him for a camel," drawled Jack unsympathetically. "They're more durable."
"Watch him come, now!" Dade gave three short, shrill whistles, and with a toss of head by way of answer, Surry came tearing up the slope, straight for his master. The shadow of the oak was all about him when he planted his front feet stiffly and stopped; flared his nostrils in a snort and, because Dade waved his hand to the right, wheeled that way, circled the oak at a pace which set his body aslant and stopped again quite as suddenly as before. Dade held out his hand, and Surry came up and rubbed the palm playfully with his soft muzzle.
"For a camel, did you say?" Dade grinned triumphantly at the other over the sleek back of his pet.
"What'll you take for him?"
Dade pulled the heavy forelock straight with fingers that caressed with every touch. "Jose Pacheco asked me that, and I came pretty near hitting him. I don't reckon I'll ever be drunk enough to name a price. But I might—"
Jack glanced at him, and saw that his lips were half parted in a smile born of some fancy of his own, and that his eyes were seeing dreams. Jack stared for a full minute before Dade's thoughts jerked back to his surroundings. Dade was not a dreamer; or if he were, Jack had never had occasion to suspect him of it, and he wondered a little what it was that had sent Dade into dreams at that hour of the morning. But Manuel was returning, riding one pony and leading another; so Jack threw away his cigarette stub and picked up the saddle blanket.
Manuel came up and saddled his mount silently, his deft fingers working mechanically while his black eyes stole sidelong looks at Jack saddling Surry, as if he would measure the man anew. While he was anathematizing the buckskin in language for which he would need to do a penance later on, if he confessed the blasphemy to the padre, Jack threw Valencia's saddle upon the little sorrel pony Manuel had led up for him to ride.
"Truly one would not like to die for having stolen such a beast," stated Manuel earnestly, knotting a macarte around the neck of the buckskin. "He is only fit to carry men to hangings. Come, accursed one! The Vigilantes are weeping for one so like themselves. Adios, Senors!"
He rode away, still heaping opprobrium upon the reluctant buckskin, and speedily he disappeared behind a clump of willows clothed in the pale green of new leaves.
Dade dropped the bullock hide which served for a door, to signify that the master of the house was absent. Though the old don's cattle might be butchered under his very nose, Manuel's few belongings would not be molested, though only the dingy brown hide of a bull long since gone the way of all flesh barred the way; a week, one month or six the hut would stand inviolate from despoliation; for such was the unwritten law of a land where life was held cheaper than the things necessary to preserve life.
On such a morning, when the air was like summer and all the birds were rehearsing most industriously their parts in the opening chorus with which Spring meant to celebrate her return to the northern land, a ride down the valley was pure joy to any man whose soul was tuned in harmony with the great outdoors; and trouble lagged and could not keep pace with the riders.
Half-way down, they met Valencia, a slim young Spaniard with one of those amazing smiles that was like a flash of sunlight, what with his perfect teeth, his eyes that could almost laugh out loud, and a sunny soul behind them. Valencia, having an appetite for acquiring wisdom of various kinds and qualities, knew some English and was not averse to making strangers aware of the accomplishment.
Therefore, when the two greeted him in Spanish, he calmly replied: "Hello, pardner," and pulled up for a smoke.
"How you feel for my dam-close call to-morrow?" he wanted to know of Jack, when he learned his name.
"Pretty well. How did you know—?" began Jack, but the other cut him short.
"Jose, she heard on town. The patron, she's worry leetle. She's 'fraid for Senor Hunter be keel. Me, I ride to find for-sure." Valencia dropped his match, and leaned negligently from the saddle and picked it out of the grass, his eyes stealing a look at the stranger as he came up.
"Good work," commented Jack under his breath to Dade. But Valencia's ears were keen for praise; he heard, and from that moment he was Jack's friend.
"I borrowed your saddle, Valencia," Jack announced, meaning to promise a speedy return of it.
"Not my saddle; yours and mine, amigo," amended Valencia quite simply and sincerely. "Mine, she's yours also. You keep him." While he smoked the little, corn-husk cigarette, he eyed with admiration the copper-red hair upon which Manuel had looked with disfavor.
Before they rode on and left him, his friendliness had stamped an agreeable impression upon Jack's consciousness. He looked back approvingly at the sombreroed head bobbing along behind a clump of young manzanita just making ready to bloom daintily.
"I like that vaquero," he stated emphatically. "He's worth two of Manuel, to my notion."
"Valencia? He's not half the man old Manuel is. He gambles worse than an Injun, and never has anything more than his riding outfit and the clothes on his back, they tell me. And he fights like a catamount when the notion strikes him; and it doesn't seem to make much difference whether he's got an excuse or not. He's a good deal like you, in that respect," he added, with that perfect frankness which true friendship affects as a special privilege earned by its loyalty.
"Manuel's got tricky eyes," countered Jack. "He's the kind of Spaniard that will 'Si, Senor,' while he's hitching his knife loose to get you in the back. I know the breed; I lived amongst 'em before I ever saw you. Valencia's the kind I'd tie to."
"And I was working with 'em when you were saying 'pitty horsey!' My first job was with a Spanish outfit. A Mexican majordomo licked me into shape when I was sweet sixteen. And," he clinched the argument mercilessly, "I was sixteen and drawing a man's pay on rodeo when you wore your pants buttoned on to your waist!"
"And you don't know anything yet!" Jack came back at him. Whereat they laughed and called a truce, which was the way of them.
THE LORD OF THE VALLEY
Scattered, grazing herds of wild, long-horned cattle that ran from their approach gave place to feeding mustangs with the mark of the saddle upon them. Later, an adobe wall confronted them; and this they followed through a grove of great live oaks and up a grassy slope beyond, to where the long, low adobe house sat solidly upon a natural terrace, with the valley lying before and the hills at its back; a wide-armed, wide-porched, red-roofed adobe such as the Spanish aristocracy loved to build for themselves. The sun shone warmly upon the great, latticed porch, screened by the passion vines that hid one end completely from view. To the left, a wing stretched out generously, with windows curtained primly with some white stuff that flapped desultorily in the fitful breeze from the south. At the right, so close that they came near being a part of the main structure and helped to give the general effect of a hollow, open-sided square, stood a row of small adobe huts; two of them were tiled like the house, and the last, at the outer end, was thatched with tules.
Into the immaculate patio thus formed before the porch, Dade led the way boldly, as one sure of his welcome. Behind the vines a girl's voice, speaking rapidly and softly with a laugh running all through the tones, hushed as suddenly as does a wild bird's twitter when strange steps approach. And just as suddenly did Dade's nostrils flare with the quick breath he drew; for tones, if one listens understandingly, may tell a great deal. Even Jack knew instinctively that a young man sat with the girl behind the vines.
After the hush they heard the faint swish of feminine movement. She came and stood demurely at the top of the wide steps, a little hoop overflowing soft, white embroidered stuff in her hands.
"Welcome home, Senor Hunter," she said, and made him a courtesy that was one-third politeness and the rest pure mockery. "My father will be relieved in his mind when he sees you. I think he slept badly last night on your account."
Wistfulness was in Dade's eyes when he looked at her; as though he wanted to ask if she also were relieved at seeing him. But there was the man behind the lattice where the vines were thickest; the man who was young and whom she had found a pleasant companion. Also there was Jack, who was staring with perfect frankness, his eyes a full shade darker as he looked at her. And there was the peon scampering barefooted across from one of the huts to take their horses. Dade therefore confined himself to conventional phrases.
"Senorita, let me present to you my friend, Jack Allen," he said. "Jack, this is the Senorita Teresa Picardo."
His nostrils widened again when he looked casually at Jack; for Jack's sombrero was swept down to his knees in salute—though it was not that; it was the look in his face that sent Dade's glance seeking Teresita's eyes for answer.
But Teresita only showed him how effectively black lashes contrast with the faint flush of cheeks just hinting at dimples, and he got no answer there.
She made another little courtesy, lifting her lashes unexpectedly for a swift glance at Jack, as he dismounted hastily and went up two steps, his hand outstretched to her.
"We Americanos like to shake hands upon a new friendship," he said boldly.
The senorita laughed a little, changed her embroidery hoop from her right hand to her left, laid her fingers in his palm, blushed when his hand closed upon them eagerly, and laughed again when her gold thimble slipped and rolled tinkling down the steps.
Dade picked the thimble out of a matted corner of a violet bed, and returned it to her unsmilingly; got a flash of her eyes and a little nod for his reward, and stood back, waiting her further pleasure.
"You have had adventures, Senor, since yesterday morning," she said to him lightly. "Truly, you Americanos do very wonderful things! Jose, here is Senor Hunter and his friend whom he stole away from the Vigilantes yesterday! Did you have the invisible cap, Senor? It was truly a miracle such as the padres tell of, that the blessed saints performed in the books. Jose told us what he heard—but when I have called my mother, you yourself must tell us every little bit of it."
While she was talking she was also pulling forward two of the easiest chairs, playing the hostess prettily and stealing a lash-hidden glance now and then at the tall senor with such blue eyes and hair the like of which she had never seen, and the mouth curved like the lips of a woman.
The young man whom she addressed as Jose rose negligently and greeted them punctiliously; seated himself again, picked up a guitar and strummed a minor chord lazily.
"Don Andres is busy at the corrals," Jose volunteered, when the girl had gone. "He will return soon. You had a disagreeable experience, Senor? One of my vaqueros heard the story in town. There was a rumor that the Vigilantes were sending out parties to search for you when Carlos started home. Senor Allen is lucky to get off so easily."
Jack held a match unlighted in his fingers while he studied the face of Jose. The tone of him had jarred, but his features were wiped clean of any expression save faint boredom; and his fingers, plucking a plaintive fragment of a fandango from the strings, belied the sarcasm Jack had suspected. Don Andres himself, at that moment coming eagerly across from the hut at the end of the row, saved the necessity of replying.
"Welcome home, amigo mio!" cried the don, hurrying up the steps, sombrero in hand. "Never has sight of a horse pleased me as when Diego led yours to the stable. Thrice welcome—since you bring your friend to honor my poor household with his presence."
No need to measure guardedly those tones, or that manner. Don Andres Picardo was as clean, as honest, and as kindly as the sunshine that mellowed the dim distances behind him. The two came to their feet unconsciously and received his handclasp with inner humility. Don Andres held Dade's hand a shade longer than the most gracious hospitality demanded, while his eyes dwelt solicitously upon his face, browned near to the shade of a native son of those western slopes.
"I heard of your brave deed, Senor—of how you rode into the midst of the Vigilantes and snatched your friend from under the very shadow of the oak. I did not hear that you escaped their vengeance afterwards, and I feared greatly lest harm had befallen you. Dios! It was gallantly done, like a knight of olden times—"
"Oh, no. I didn't rescue any lady, Don Andres. Just Jack—and he was in a fair way to rescue himself, by the way. It wasn't anything much, but I suppose the story did grow pretty big by the time it got to you."
"And does your friend also call it a little thing?" The don turned quizzically to Jack.
"He does not," Jack returned promptly, although his ears were listening attentively for a nearer approach of the girl-voice he heard within the house. "He calls it one of the big things Dade is always doing for his friends." He dropped a hand on Dade's shoulder and shook him with an affectionate make-believe of disfavor. "He's always risking his valuable neck to save my worthless one, Don Andres. He means well, but he doesn't know any better. He packed me out of a nest of Indians once, just as foolishly; we were coming out from Texas at the time. You'd be amazed at some of the things I could tell you about him—"
"And about himself, if he would," drawled Dade. "If he ever tells you about the Indian scrape, Don Andres, ask him how he happened to get into the nest. As to yesterday, perhaps you heard how it came that Jack got so close to the oak!"
"No—I heard merely of the danger you were in. Jose's head vaquero was in town when the Vigilantes returned with their Captain and those others, and there were many rumors. This morning I sent Valencia to learn the truth, and if you were in danger—Perhaps I could have done little, but I should have tried to save you," he added simply. "I should not like a clash with the gringos—pardon, Senors; I speak of the class whom you also despise."
Jose laughed and swept the strings harshly with his thumb. "The clash will come, Don Andres, whether you like it or not," he said. "This morning I saw one more unasked tenant on your meadow, near the grove of alders. What they call a 'prairie schooner.' A big, red-topped hombre, and his woman—gringos of the class I despise; which includes"—again he flung his thumb across the guitar string—"all gringos!"
Jack's lips opened for hot answer, but Don Andres forestalled him quietly.
"One more tenant does not harm me, Jose. When the American government puts its seal upon the seal of Spain and restores my land to me, these unasked tenants will go the way they came. There will be no clash." But he sighed even while he made the statement, as if the subject were neither new nor pleasant to dwell upon.
"Why," demanded Jose bitterly, "should the Americanos presume to question our right to our land? You and my father made the valley what it is; your shiploads of hides and tallow that you sent from Yerba Buena made the town prosper, and called adventurers this way; and now they steal your cattle and lands, and their government is the biggest thief of all, for it tells them to steal more. They will make you poor, Don Andres, while you wait for them to be just. No, I permit no 'prairie schooner' to stop, even that their oxen may drink. My vaqueros ride beside them till they have crossed the boundary. You, Don Andres, if you would permit your vaqueros to do likewise, instead of shaking hands with the gringos and bidding them welcome—"
"But I do not permit it; nor do I seek counsel from the children I have tossed on my foot to the tune of a nursery rhyme." He shook his white-crowned head reprovingly. "He was always screaming at his duenna, one child that I recollect," he smiled.
"Art thou scolding Jose again, my Andres? He loves to play that thou and Teresita are children still, Jose; it serves to beguile him into forgetting the years upon his head! Welcome, Senors. Teresita but told me this moment that you had come. She is bringing the wine—"
On their feet they greeted the Senora Picardo. Like the don, her husband, honest friendliness was in her voice, her smile, the warm clasp of her plump hand. The sort of woman who will mother you at sight, was the senora. Purple silk—hastily put on for the guests, one might suspect—clothed her royally. Golden hoops hung from her ears, a diamond brooch held together the lace beneath her cushiony chin; a comfortable woman who smiled much, talked much and worried more lest she leave some little thing undone for those about her.
"And this is the poor senor who was in such dreadful danger!" she went on commiseratingly. "Ah, the wicked times that have come upon us! Presently we shall fear to sleep in our beds—Senor Hunter, you have been hurt! The mark of blood is on your sleeve, the stain is on your side! A-ah, my poor friend! Come instantly and I will—"
"Gracias, Senora; it is nothing. Besides, Manuel put on a poultice of herbs. It's only a scratch, but it bled a little while I rode to the hut of Manuel." If blushes could have shown through the tan, Dade might have looked as uncomfortable as he felt at that moment.
The senorita was already in the doorway, convoying a sloe-eyed maid who bore wine and glasses upon a tray of beaten silver; and the smile of the senorita was disturbing to a degree, brief though it was.
Behind the wine came cakes, and the senorita pointed tragically to the silver dish that held them. "Madre mia, those terrible children of Margarita have stolen half the cakes! I ran after them in the orchard—but they swallow fast, those ninos! Now the senors must starve!"
Up went the hand of the senora in dismay, and down went the head of the senorita to hide how she was biting the laughter from her lips. "I ran," she murmured pathetically, "and I caught Angelo—but at that moment he popped the cake into his mouth and it was gone! Then I ran after Maria—and she swallowed—"
"Teresita mia! The senors will think—" What they would think she did not stipulate, but her eyes implored them to judge leniently the irrepressibility of her beautiful one. There were cakes sufficient—a hasty glance reassured her upon that point—and Teresita was in one of her mischievous moods. The mother who had reared her sighed resignedly and poured the wine into the small glasses with a quaint design cut into their sides, perfectly unconscious of the good the little diversion had done.
For a half-hour there was peaceful converse; of the adventure which had brought the two gringos to the ranch as to a sanctuary, of the land which lay before them, and of the unsettled conditions that filled the days with violence.
Jose still strummed softly upon the guitar, a pleasant undertone to the voices. And because he said very little, he saw and thought the more; seeing glances and smiles between a strange man and the maid whom he loved desirefully, bred the thought which culminated in a sudden burst of speech against the gringos who had come into the peaceful land and brought with them strife. Who stole the cattle of the natives, calmly appropriated the choicest bits of valley land without so much as a by-your-leave, and who treated the rightful owners with contempt and as though they had no right to live in the valley where they were born.
"Last week," he went on hotly, "an evil gringo with the clay of his burrowings still upon his garments cursed me and called me greaser because I did not give him all the road for his burro. I, Jose Pacheco! They had better have a care, or the 'greasers' will drive them back whence they came, like the cattle they are. When I, a don, must give the road to a gringo lower than the peons whom I flog for less impertinence, it is time we ceased taking them by the hand as though they were our equals!" His eyes went accusingly to the face of the girl.
She flung up her head and met the challenge in her own way, which was with the knife-thrust of her light laughter. "Ah, the poor Americanos! Not the prayers of all the padres can save them from the blackness of their fate, since Don Jose Pacheco frowns and will not take their hand in friendship! How they will gnash the teeth when they hear the terrible tidings—Jose Pacheco, don and son of a don, will have none of them, nor will he give way to their poor burros on the highway!" She shook her head as she had done over the tragedy of the little cakes. "Pobre gringos! Pobre gringos!" she murmured mockingly.
"Children, have done!" The hand of the senora went chidingly to the shoulder of her incorrigible daughter. "This is foolish and unseemly—though all thy quarreling is that, the saints know well. Our guests are Americanos; our guests, who are our friends," she stated gently, looking at Jose. "Not all Spaniards are good, Jose; not all gringos are bad. They are as we are, good and bad together. Speak not like a child, amigo mio."
The guitar which Jose flung down upon a broad stool beside him hummed resonant accompaniment to his footsteps as he left the veranda. "Thy house, Senora, has been as my mother's house since I can remember. Until thy gringo guests have made room for me, I leave it!"
"Senor Allen, would you like to see my birds?" invited Teresita wickedly, her glance flicking scornfully the reproachful face of Jose, as he turned it towards her, and dwelling with a smile upon Jack.
"Wicked one!" murmured the senora, in her heart more than half approving the discipline.
Jose had humiliation as well as much bitterness to carry away with him; for he saw the senor with the bright blue eyes follow gladly the laughing Teresita to her rose garden, and as he went jingling across the patio without waiting to summon a peon to bring him his horse, he heard the voice of Don Andres making apology to Dade for the rudeness of him, Jose.
DON ANDRES WANTS A MAJORDOMO
"Senor, those things which you desired that I should bring, I have brought. All is of the best. Also have I brought a letter from the Senor Weelson, and what remains of the gold the senor will find laid carefully in the midst of his clothing. So I have done all as it would have been done for the patron himself." In the downward sweep of Manuel's sombrero one might read that peculiar quality of irony which dislike loves to inject into formal courtesy.
Behind Manuel waited a peon burdened with elegant riding gear and a bundle of clothing, and a gesture brought him forward to deposit his load upon the porch before the gringo guest, whose "Gracias" Manuel waved into nothingness; as did the quick shrug disdain the little bag of gold which Jack drew from his pocket and would have tossed to Manuel for reward.
"It was nothing," he smiled remotely; and went his way to find the patron and deliver to him a message from a friend.
Behind Jack came the click of slipper-heels upon the hardwood; and he turned from staring, puzzled, after the stiff-necked Manuel, and gave the girl a smile such as a man reserves for the woman who has entered into his dreams.
"Santa Maria, what elegance! Now will the senor ride in splendor that will dazzle the eyes to look upon!" Teresita bantered, poking a slipper-toe tentatively towards the saddle, and clasping her hands in mock rapture. "On every corner, silver crescents; on the tapideros, silver stars bigger than Venus; riding behind the cantle, a whole milky way; Jose will surely go mad with rage when he sees. Stars has Jose, but no moon to bear him company when he rides. Surely the cattle will fall upon their knees when the senor draws near!"
"Shall we ride out and put them to the test?" he asked wishfully, shaking out the bridle to show the beautiful design of silver inlaid upon the leather cheek-piece, and stooping to adjust a big-roweled, silver-incrusted spur upon his boot-heel. "Manuel does exactly as he is told. I said he was to get the best he could find—"
"And so no vaquero in the valley will be so gorgeous—" She broke off suddenly to sing in lilting Spanish a fragment of some old song that told of the lilies of the field that "Toil not, neither do they spin."
"That is not kind. I may not spin, but I toil—I leave it to Dade if I don't." This last, because he caught sight of Dade coming across from the row of huts, which was a short cut up from the corrals. "And I can show you the remains of blisters—" He held out a very nice appearing palm towards her, and looked his fill at her pretty face, while she bent her brows and inspected the hand with the gravity that threatened to break at any instant into laughter.
That sickening grip in the chest which is a real, physical pain, though the hurt be given to the soul of a man, slowed Dade's steps to a lagging advance towards the tableau the two made on the steps. So had the senorita sent him dizzy with desire (and with hope to brighten it) in the two weeks and more that he had been the honored guest. So had she laughed and teased him and mocked him; and he had believed that to him alone would she show the sweet whimsies of her nature. But from the moment when he laid her gold thimble in her waiting hand and got no reward save an absent little nod of thanks, the dull ache had been growing in his heart. He knew what it was that had sent Jose off in that headlong rage against all gringos; though two days before he would have said that Jose's jealousy was for him, and with good reason. There had been glances between those two who stood now so close together—swift measuring of the weapons which sex uses against sex, with quick smiles when the glances chanced to meet. Jose also had seen the byplay; and the fire had smoldered in his eyes until at last it kindled into flame and drove him cursing from the place. In his heart Dade could not blame Jose.
Forgotten while Teresita held back with one hand a black lock which the wind was trying to fling across her eyes, and murmured mocking commiseration over the half obliterated callouses on Jack's hand, Dade loitered across the patio, remembering many things whose very sweetness made the present hurt more bitter. He might have known it would be like this, he told himself sternly; but life during the past two weeks had been too sweet for forebodings or for precaution. He had wanted Jack to see and admire Teresita, with the same impulse that would have made him want to show Jack any other treasure which Chance held out to him while Hope smiled over her shoulder and whispered that it was his.
Well, Jack had seen her, and Jack surely admired her; and the grim humor of Dade's plight struck through the ache and made him laugh, even though his jaws immediately went together with a click of teeth and cut the laugh short. He might have known—but he was not the sort of man who stands guard against friend and foe alike.
And, he owned to himself, Jack was unconscious of any hurt for his friend in this rather transparent wooing. A little thought would have enlightened him, perhaps, or a little observation; but Dade could not blame Jack for not seeking for some obstacle in the path of his desires.
"She says I'm lazy and got these callouses grabbing the soft snaps last summer in the mines," Jack called lightly, when finally it occurred to him that the world held more than two persons. "I'm always getting the worst of it when you and I are compared. But I believe I've got the best of you on riding outfit, old man. Take a look at that saddle, will you! And these spurs! And this bridle! The senorita says the cattle will fall on their knees when I ride past; we're going to take a gallop and find out. Want to come along?"
"Arrogant one! The senorita did not agree to that ride! The senorita has something better to do than bask in the glory of so gorgeous a senor while he indulges his vanity—and frightens the poor cattle so that, if they yield their hides at killing time, there will be little tallow for the ships to carry away!"
The Senorita Teresita would surely never be guilty of a conscious lowering of one eyelid to point her raillery, but the little twist she gave to her lips when she looked at Dade offered a fair substitute; and the flirt of her silken skirts as she turned to run back into the house was sufficient excuse for any imbecility in a man.
Jack looked after her with some chagrin. "The little minx! A man might as well put up his hands when he hears her coming—huh? Unless he's absolutely woman-proof, like you. How do you manage it, anyway?"
"By taking a squint at myself in the looking-glass every morning." Dade's face managed to wrinkle humorously. "H-m. You are pretty gorgeous, for a fact. Where's the riata?"
Jack had forgotten that he had ever wanted one. He lifted the heavy, high-cantled saddle, flung it down upon the other side and untied the new coil of braided rawhide from its place on the right fork.
"A six-strand, eh? I could tell Manuel a few things about riatas, if he calls that the best! Four strands are stronger than six, any time. I've seen too many stranded—"
"The senor is not pleased with the riata?"
Manuel, following Don Andres across to the veranda, had caught the gesture and tone; and while his knowledge of English was extremely sketchy, he knew six and four when he heard those numerals mentioned, and the rest was easy guessing.
"The four strands are good, but the six are better—when Joaquin Murieta lays the strands. From the hide of a very old bull was this riata cut; perhaps the senor is aware that the hide is thus of the same thickness throughout and strong as the bull that grew it. Not one strand is laid tighter than the other strand; the wildest bull in the valley could not break it—if the senor should please to catch him! Me, I could have bought three riatas for the gold I gave for this one; but the senor told me to get the best." His shoulders went up an inch, though Don Andres was frowning at the tone of him. "The senor can return it to the Mission and get the three, or he can exchange it with any vaquero in the valley for one which has four strands. I am very sorry that the senor is not pleased with my choice."
"You needn't be sorry. It's a very pretty riata, and I have no doubt it will do all I ask of it. The saddle's a beauty, and the bridle and spurs—I'm a thousand times obliged."
"It is nothing and less than nothing," disclaimed Manuel once more; and went in to ask the senora for a most palatable decoction whose chief ingredient was blackberry wine, which the senora recommended to all and sundry for various ailments. Though Manuel, the deceitful one, had no ailment, he did have a keen appreciation of the flavour of the cordial, and his medicine bottle was never long empty—or full—if he could help it.
A moment later Jack, hearing a human, feminine twitter from the direction of the rose garden, left off examining pridefully his belongings, and bolted without apology, after his usual headlong fashion.
Don Andres sat him down in an easy-chair in the sun, and sighed as he did so. "He is hot-tempered, that vaquero," he said regretfully, his mind upon Manuel. "Something has stirred his blood; surely your friend has done nothing to offend him?"
"Nothing except remark that he has always liked a four-strand riata better than six. At the hut he was friendly enough."
"He is not the only one whose anger is easily stirred against the gringos," remarked the don, reaching mechanically for his tobacco pouch, while he watched Dade absently examining the new riata.
"Senor Hunter," Don Andres began suddenly, "have you decided what you will do? Your mine in the mountains—it will be foolish to return there while the hands of the Vigilantes are reaching out to clutch you; do you not think so? More of the tale I have heard from Valencia, who returned with Manuel. Those men who died at the hand of your friend—and died justly, I am convinced—had friends who would give much for close sight of you both."
"I know; I told Jack we'd have to keep away from town or the mine for a while. He wanted to go right back and finish up the fight!" Dade grinned at the absurdity. "I sat down hard on that proposition." Not that phrase, exactly, did he use. One may be pardoned a free translation, since, though he spoke in excellent Spanish, he did not twist his sentences like a native, and he was not averse to making use of certain idioms quite as striking in their way as our own Americanisms.
Don Andres rolled a cigarette and smoked it thoughtfully. "You were wise. Also, I bear in mind your statement that you could not long be content to remain my guest. Terribly independent and energetic are you Americanos." He smoked through another pause, while Dade's puzzled glance dwelt secretly upon his face and tried to read what lay in his mind. It seemed to him that the don was working his way carefully up to a polite hint that the visit might be agreeably terminated; and his uneasy thoughts went to the girl. Did her father resent—
"My majordomo," the don continued, just in time to hold back Dade's hasty assurance that they would leave immediately, "my majordomo does not please me. Many faults might I name, sufficient to make plain my need for another." A longer wait, as if time were indeed infinite, and he owned it all. "Also I might name reasons for my choice of another, who is yourself, Senor Hunter. Perhaps in you I recognize simply the qualities which I desire my majordomo to possess. Perhaps also I desire that some prejudiced countrymen of mine shall be taught a lesson and made to see that not all Americanos are unworthy. However that may be, I shall be truly glad if you will accept. The salary we will arrange as pleases you, and your friend will, I hope, remain in whatever capacity you may desire. Further, when your government has given some legal assurance that my land is mine," he smiled wrily at the necessity for such assurance, "as much land as you Americanos call a 'section,' choose it where you will—except that it shall not take my house or my cultivated land—shall be yours for the taking."
"Not so much the offer of a position would I have you consider it," interrupted the other with the first hint of haste he had shown, "as a favor that I would ask. Times are changing, and we natives are high-chested and must learn to make room for others who are coming amongst us. To speak praises to the face of a friend is not my habit, yet I will say that I would teach my people to respect good men, whatever the race; and especially Americanos, who will be our neighbors henceforth. I shall be greatly pleased when you tell me that you will be my majordomo; more than ever one needs a man of intelligence and tact—"
"And are none of our own people tactful or intelligent, Don Andres Picardo?" demanded Manuel, having overheard the last sentence or two from the doorway. He came out and stood before his beloved "patron," his whole fat body quivering with amazed indignation, so that the bottle which the senora had filled for him shook in his hand. "Amongst the gringos must you go to find one worthy? Truly it is as Don Jose tells me; these gringos have come but to make trouble where all was peace. To-day he told me all his thoughts, and me, I hardly believed it was as he said. Would the patron have a majordomo who knows nothing of rodeos, nothing of the cattle—"
"You're mistaken there, Manuel," Dade broke in calmly. "Whether I become majordomo or not, I know cattle. They have a few in Texas, where I came from. I can qualify in cowology any time. And," he added loyally, "so can Jack. You thought he didn't know what he was talking about, when he was looking at that riata; but I'll back him against any man in California when it comes to riding and roping.
"But that needn't make us bad friends, Manuel. I didn't come to make trouble, and I won't stay to make any. We've been friends; let's stay that way. I'm a gringo, all right, but I've lived more with your people than my own, and if you want the truth, I don't know but what I feel more at home with them. And the same with Jack. We've eaten and slept with Spaniards and worked with them and played with them, half our lives."
"Still it is as Jose says," reiterated Manuel stubbornly. "Till the gringos came all was well; when they came, trouble came also. Till the gringos came, no watch was put over the cattle, for only those who hungered killed and ate. Now they steal the patron's cattle by hundreds, they steal his land, and if Jose speaks truly, they would steal also—" He hesitated to speak what was on his tongue, and finished lamely: "what is more precious still.
"And the patron will have a gringo for majordomo?" He returned to the issue. "Then I, Manuel, must leave the patron's employ. I and half the vaqueros. The patron," he added with what came close to a sneer, "had best seek gringo vaqueros—with the clay of the mines on their boots, and their red shirts to call the bulls!"
"I shall do what it pleases me to do," declared the don sternly. "Advice from my vaqueros I do not seek. And you," he said haughtily, "have choice of two things; you may crave pardon for your insolence to my guest, who is also my friend, and who will henceforth have charge of my vaqueros and my cattle, or you may go whither you will; to Don Jose Pacheco, I doubt not."
He leaned his white-crowned head against the high chair-back, and while he waited for Manuel's decision he gazed calmly at the border of red tiles which showed at the low eaves of the porch—calmly as to features only, for his eyes held the blaze of anger.
"Senors, I go." The brim of Manuel's sombrero flicked the dust of the patio.
"Come, then, and I will reckon your wage," invited the don, coldly courteous as to a stranger. "You will excuse me, Senor? I shall not be long."
Dade's impulse was to protest, to intercede, to say that he and Jack would go immediately, rather than stir up strife. But he had served a stern apprenticeship in life, and he knew it was too late now to put out the fires of wrath burning hotly in the hearts of those two; however completely he might efface himself, the resentment was too keen, the quarrel too fresh to be so easily forgotten.
He was standing irresolutely on the steps when Jack came hack from the rose garden, whistling softly an old love-song and smiling fatuously to himself.
"We're going to take that ride, after all," he announced gleefully. "Want to come along? She's going to ask her father to come, too—says it would be terribly improper for us two to ride alone. What's the matter? Got the toothache?"
Dade straightened himself automatically after the slap on the back that was like a cuff from a she-bear, and grunted an uncivil sentence.
"Come over to the saddle-house," he commanded afterward. "And take that truck off the senora's front steps before she sees it and has a fit. I want to talk to you."
"Oh, Lord!" wailed Jack, under his breath, but he shouldered the heavy saddle obediently, leaving Dade to bring what remained. "Cut it short, then; she's gone to dress and ask her dad; and I'm supposed to order the horses and get you started. What's the trouble?"
Dade first went over to the steps before their sleeping-room and deposited Jack's personal belongings; and Jack seized the minute of grace to call a peon and order the horses saddled.
He turned from watching proudly the glitter of the trimmings on his new saddle as the peon bore it away on his shoulder, and confronted Dade with a tinge of defiance in his manner.
"Well, what have I done now?" he challenged. "Anything particularly damnable about talking five minutes to a girl in plain sight of her—"
Dade threw out both hands in a gesture of impatience. "That isn't the only important thing in the world," he pointed out sarcastically. If the inner hurt served to sharpen his voice, he did not know it. "Don Andres wants to make me his majordomo."
Jack's eyes bulged a little; and if Dade had not wisely side-stepped he would have received another one of Jack's muscle-tingling slaps on the shoulder. "Whee-ee! Say, you're getting appreciated, at last, old man. Good for you! Give me a job?"
"I'm not going to take it," said Dade. "I was going to ask you if you want to pull out with me to-morrow."
Jack's jaw went slack. "Not going to take it!" He leaned against the adobe wall behind him and stuck both hands savagely into his pockets. "Why, you darned chump, how long ago was it that you talked yourself black in the face, trying to make me say I'd stay? Argued like a man trying to sell shaving soap; swore that nobody but a born idiot would think of passing up such a chance; badgered me into giving in; and now when you've got a chance like this, you—Say, you're loco!"
"Maybe." Dade's eyes went involuntarily toward the veranda, where Teresita appeared for an instant, looking questioningly towards them. "Maybe I am loco. But Manuel's mad because the don offered me the place, and has quit; and he says half the vaqueros will leave, that they won't work under a gringo."
Jack's indignant eyes changed to a queer, curious stare. "Dade Hunter! If I didn't know you, if I hadn't seen you in more tight places than I've got fingers and toes, I'd say—But you aren't scared; you never had sense enough to be afraid of anything in your life. You can't choke that down me, old man. What's the real reason why you want to leave?"
The real reason came again to the doorway sixty feet away and looked out impatiently to where the senors were talking so earnestly and privately; but Dade would have died several different and unpleasant deaths before he would name that reason. Instead:
"It will be mighty disagreeable for Don Andres, trying to keep things smooth," he said. "And it isn't as if he were stuck for a majordomo. Manuel has turned against me from pure jealousy. He opened his heart, one night when we were alone together, and told me that when Carlos Pacorra went—and Manuel said the patron would not keep him long, for his insolence—he, Manuel, would be majordomo. He's mad as the deuce, and I don't blame him; and he's a good man for the place; the vaqueros like him."
"You say he's quit?"
"Yes. He got pretty nasty, and the don has gone to pay him off."
"Well, what good would it do for you to turn down the offer, then? Manuel wouldn't get it, would he?"
"No-o, he wouldn't."
"Well, then—oh, thunder! Something ought to be done for that ingrowing modesty of yours! Dade, if you pass up that place, I'll—I'll swear you're crazy. I know you like it, here. You worked hard enough to convert me to that belief!"
A sudden thought made him draw a long breath; he reached out and caught Dade by both shoulders.
"Say, you can't fool me a little bit! You're backing up because you're afraid I may be jealous or something. You're afraid you're standing in my light. Darn you, I've had enough of that blamed unselfishness of yours, old man." The endearing smile lighted his face then and his eyes. "You go ahead and take the job, Dade. I don't want it. I'll be more than content to have you boss me around." He hesitated, looking at the other a bit wistfully. "Of course, you know that if you go, old boy, I'll go with you. But—" The look he sent towards Teresita, who appeared definitely upon the porch and stood waiting openly and impatiently, amply finished the sentence.
Dade's eyes followed Jack's understandingly, and the thing he had meant to do seemed all at once contemptible, selfish, and weak. He had meant to leave and take Jack with him, because it hurt him mightily to see those two falling in love with each other. The trouble his staying might bring to Don Andres was nothing more nor less than a subterfuge. If Teresita's smiles had continued to be given to him as they had been before Jack came, he told himself bitterly, he would never have thought of going. And Jack thought he hesitated from pure unselfishness! The fingers that groped mechanically for his tobacco, though he had no intention of smoking just then, trembled noticeably.
"All right," he said quietly. "I'll stay, then." And a moment after: "Go ask her if she wants to ride Surry. I promised her she could, next time she rode."
JERRY SIMPSON, SQUATTER
The senorita, it would seem, had lost interest in the white horse as well as in his master. That was the construction which Dade pessimistically put upon her smiling assurance that she could never be so selfish as to take Senor Hunter's wonderful Surry and condemn him to some commonplace caballo; though she gave also a better reason than that, which was that her own horse was already saddled—witness the peon leading the animal into the patio at that very moment—and that an exchange would mean delay. Dade took both reasons smilingly, and mentally made a vow with a fearsome penalty attached to the breaking of it. After which he felt a little more of a man, with his pride to bear him company.
Manuel came out from the room which Don Andres used for an office, saluted the senorita with the air of a permanent leave-taking, as well as a greeting, and passed the gringos with face averted. A moment later the don followed him with the look of one who would dismiss a distasteful business from his mind; and entered amiably into the pleasure-seeking spirit of the ride.
With the March sun warm upon them when they rode out from the wide shade of the oaks, they faced the cooling little breeze which blew out of the south.
"Valencia tells me that the prairie schooner which Jose spoke of has of a truth cast anchor upon my land," observed the don to Dade, reining in beside him where he rode a little in advance of the others. "Since we are riding that way, we may as well see the fellow and make him aware of the fact that he is trespassing upon land which belongs to another; though if he has halted but to rest his cattle and himself, he is welcome. But Valencia tells me that the fellow is cutting down trees for a house, and that I do not like."
"Some emigrants seem to think, because they have traveled over so much wilderness, there is no land west of the Mississippi that they haven't a perfect right to take, if it suits them. They are a little like your countryman Columbus, I suppose. Every man who crosses the desert feels as if he's out on a voyage of discovery to a new world; and when he does strike California, it's hard for him to realize that he can't take what he wants of it."
"I think you are right," admitted Don Andres after a minute. "And your government also seems to believe it has come into possession of a wilderness, peopled only by savages who must give way to the march of civilization. Whereas we Spaniards were in possession of the land while yet your colonies paid tribute to their king in England, and we ourselves have brought the savages to the ways of Christian people, and have for our reward the homes which we have built with much toil and some hardships, like yourselves when your colonies were young. Twenty-one years have I looked upon this valley and called it mine, with the word of his Majesty for my authority! And surely my right to it is as the right of your people to their haciendas in Virginia or Vermont. Yet men will drive their prairie schooners to a spot which pleases them and say: 'Here, I will have this place for my home.' That is not lawful, or right."
Ten steps in the rear of them Teresita was laughing her mocking little laugh that still had in it a maddening note of tenderness. Dade tried not to hear it; for so had she laughed at him, a week ago, and set his blood leaping towards his heart. He was not skilled in the ways of women, yet he did not accuse her of deliberate coquetry, as a man is prone to do under the smart of a hurt like his; for he sensed dimly that it was but the seeking sex-instinct of healthy youth that brightened her eyes and sent the laugh to her lips when she faced a man who pleased her; and if she were fickle, it was with the instinctive fickleness of one who has not made final choice of a mate. Hope lifted its head at that, but he crushed it sternly into the dust again; for the man who rode behind was his friend, whom he loved.
It is to be feared that the voice of the girl held more of his attention than the complaint of the don, just then, and that the sting of injustice under which Don Andres squirmed seemed less poignant and vital than the hurt he himself was bearing. He answered him at random; and he might have betrayed his inattention if they had not at that moment caught sight of the interlopers.
Valencia had not borne false witness against them; the emigrants were indeed cutting down trees. More, they were industriously hauling the logs to the immediate vicinity of their camp, which was chosen with an eye to many advantages; shade, water, a broad view of the valley and plenty of open grass land already fit for the plow, if to plow were their intention.
A loose-jointed giant of a man seated upon the load of logs which two yoke of great, meek-eyed oxen had just drawn up beside a waiting pile of their fellows, waited phlegmatically their approach. A woman, all personality hidden beneath flapping calico and slat sunbonnet, climbed hastily down upon the farther side of the wagon and disappeared into the little tent that was simply the wagon-box with its canvas covering, placed upon the ground.
"Valencia told me truly. Senor Hunter, will you speak for me? Tell the big hombre that the land is mine."
To do his bidding, Dade flicked the reins upon Surry's neck and rode ahead, the others closely following. Thirty feet from the wagon a great dog of the color called brindle disputed his advance with bristling hair and throaty grumble.
"Lay down, Tige! Wait till you're asked to take a holt," advised the man on the wagon, regarding the group with an air of perfect neutrality. Tige obeying sullenly, to the extent that he crouched where he was and still growled; his master rested his elbows on his great, bony knees, sucked at a short-stemmed clay pipe and waited developments.
"How d'yuh do?" Dade, holding Surry as close to the belligerent Tige as was wise, tried to make his greeting as neutral as the attitude of the other.
"Tol'ble, thank yuh, how's y'self? Shet your trap, Tige! Tige thought you was all greasers, and he ain't made up his mind yet whether he likes 'em mixed—whites and greasers. I dunno's I blame 'im, either. We ain't either of us had much call to hanker after the dark meat. T'other day a bunch come boilin' up outa the dim distance like they was sent fur and didn't have much time to git here. Tied their tongues into hard knots tryin' to tell me somethin' I didn't have time to listen to, and looked like they wanted to see my hide hangin' on a fence.
"Tige, he didn't take to 'em much. He kept walkin' back and forth between me and them, talking as sensible as they did, I must say, and makin' his meanin' full as clear. I dunno how we'd all 'a' come out, if I hadn't brought Jemimy and the twins out and let 'em into the argument. Them greasers didn't like the looks of old Jemimy, and they backed off. Tige, he follered 'em right up, and soon's they got outa reach of Jemimy, they took down their lariats an' tried to hitch onto him.
"They didn't know Tige. That thar dawg's the quickest dawg on earth. He hopped through their loops like they was playin' jump-the-rope with him. Fact is, he'd learned jump-the-rope when he was a purp. He wouldn't 'a' minded that, only they didn't do it friendly. One feller whipped out his knife and throwed it at Tige—and he come mighty nigh makin' dawg-meat outa him, too. Slit his ear, it come that close. Tige ain't got no likin' fer greasers sence then. He thought you was another bunch—and so did I. Mary, she put inside after Jemimy and the twins.
"Know anything about them greasers? I see yuh got a sample along. T' other crowd was headed by a slim feller all tricked up in velvet and silver braid and red sash; called himself Don Jose Pacheco, and claimed to own all Ameriky from the ocean over there, back to the Allegheny Mountains, near as I could make out. I don't talk that kinda talk much; but I been thinkin' mebby I better get m' tongue split, so I can. Might come handy, some time; only Tige, he hates the sound of it like he hates porkypines—or badgers.
"Mary and me and Tige laid up in Los Angeles fer a spell, resting the cattle. All greasers, down there—and fleas—and take the two t'gether, they jest about wore out the hull kit and b'ilin' of us.
"What's pesterin' the ole feller? Pears like he's gittin' his tongue twisted up ready to talk—if they call it talkin'."
"What is the hombre saying?—" asked the don at that moment, seeing the glance and sensing that at last his presence was noticed.
Dade grinned and winked at Jack, who, by the way, was neither looking nor listening; for Teresita was once more tenderly ridiculing his star-incrusted saddle and so claimed his whole attention.
"He says Jose Pacheco and some others came and ordered him off. They were pretty ugly, but he called out a lady—the Senora Jemima and dos ninos—and—"
"Sa-ay, mister," interrupted the giant Jerry Simpson from the load of logs. "D'you say Senory Jemimy?"
"Why, yes. Senora means madame, or—"
"Ya'as, I know what it means. Jemimy, mister, ain't no senory, nor no madame. Jemimy's my old Kentucky rifle, mister. And the twins ain't no neenos, but a brace uh pistols that can shoot fur as it's respectable fer a pistol to shoot, and hit all it's lawful to hit. You tell him who Jemimy is, mister; and tell 'im she's a derned good talker, and most convincin' in a argyment."
"He says Jemima is not a senora," translated Dade, his eyes twinkling, "but his rifle; and the ninos are his pistols."
Don Andres hid a smile under his white mustache. "Very good. Yet I think your language must lack expression, Senor Hunter. It required much speech to say so little." There was a twinkle in his own eyes. "Also, Jose acts like a fool. You may tell the big senor that the land is mine, but that I do not desire to use harsh methods, nor have ill-feeling between us. It is my wish to live in harmony with all men; my choice of a majordomo should bear witness that I look upon Americanos with a friendly eye. I think the big hombre is honest and intelligent; his face rather pleases me. So you may tell him that Jose shall not trouble him again, and that I shall not dispute with him about his remaining here, if to remain should be his purpose when he knows the land belongs to me. But I shall look upon him as a guest. As a guest, he will be welcome until such time as he may find some free land upon which to build his casa."
Because the speech was kindly and just, and because he was in the service of the don, Dade translated as nearly verbatim as the two languages would permit. And Jerry Simpson, while he listened, gave several hard pulls with his lips upon the short stem of his pipe, discovered that there was no fire there, straightened his long leg and felt gropingly for a match in the depth of a great pocket in his trousers. His eyes, of that indeterminate color which may be either gray, hazel, or green, as the light and his mood may affect them, measured the don calmly, dispassionately, unawed; measured also Dade and the beautiful white horse he rode; and finally went twinkling over Jack and the girl, standing a little apart, wholly absorbed in trivialities that could interest no one save themselves.
"How much land does he say belongs to him? And whar did he git his title to it?" Jerry Simpson asked, when Dade was waiting for his answer.
Out of his own knowledge Dade told him.
Jerry Simpson brought two matches from his pocket, inspected them gravely and returned one carefully; lighted the other with the same care, applied the flame to his tobacco, made sure that the pipe was going to "draw" well, blew out the match, and tucked the stub down out of sight in a crease in the bark of the log upon which he was sitting. After that he rested his elbows upon his great, bony knees and smoked meditatively.
THE FINEST LITTLE WOMAN IN THE WORLD
"You tell Mr. Picardy that I ain't visitin' nobody, so he needn't consider that I'm company," announced Jerry, after a wait that was beginning to rasp the nerves of his visitors. "I come here to live! He's called this land hisn, by authority uh the king uh Spain, you say, for over twenty year. Wall, in twenty year he ain't set so much as a fence-post fur as the eye can see. I been five mile from here on every side, and I don't see no signs of his ever usin' the land fer nothin'. Now, mebby the king uh Spain knew what he was talkin' about when he give this land away, and then agin mebby he didn't. 'T any rate, I don't know as I think much of a king that'll give away a hull great gob uh land he never seen, and give it to one feller—more 'n that feller could use in a hull lifetime; more 'n he would ever need fer his young 'uns, even s'posin' he had a couple uh dozen—which ain't skurcely respectable fer one man, nohow. How many's he got, mister?"
"One—his daughter, over there."
"Hum-mh! Wall, she ain't goin' to need so derned much. You tell Mr. Picardy I've come a long ways to find a home fer Mary and me; a long road and a hard road. I can't go no further without I swim fer it, and that I don't calc'late on doin'. I ain't the kind to hog more land 'n what I can use—not mentionin' no names; but I calc'late on havin' what I need, if I can get it honest. My old mother used to read outa the Bible that the earth was the Lord's and the fullness thereof; and I ain't never heard of him handin' over two-thirds of it to any king uh Spain. What he's snoopin' around in Ameriky fur, givin' away great big patches uh country he never seen, I ain't askin'. Californy belongs to the United States of Ameriky, and the United States of Ameriky lets her citizens make homes for themselves and their families on land that ain't already in use. If Mr. Picardy can show me a deed from Gawd Almighty, signed, sealed, and delivered along about the time Moses got hisn fer the Land uh Canyan, or if he can show a paper from Uncle Sam, sayin' this place belongs to him, I'll throw off these logs, h'ist the box back on the wagon and look further; but I ain't goin' to move on the say-so uh no furrin' king, which I don't believe in nohow."
He took the pipe from his mouth, and with it pointed to a spot twenty feet away, so that they all looked towards the place.
"Right thar," he stated slowly, "is whar I'm goin' to build my cabin, fer me and Mary. And right over thar I'm goin' to plow me up a truck patch. I'm a peaceable man, mister. I don't aim to have no fussin' with my neighbors. But you tell Mr. Picardy that thar'll be loopholes cut on all four sides uh that thar cabin, and Jemimy and the twins'll be ready to argy with anybody that comes moochin' around unfriendly. I'm the peaceablest man you ever seen, but when I make up my mind to a thing, I'm firm! Pur-ty tol'able firm!" he added with complacent emphasis.
He waited expectantly while Dade put a revised version of this speech into Spanish, and placidly smoked his little black pipe while the don made answer.
"Already I find that I have done well to choose an Americano for my majordomo," Don Andres observed, a smile in his eyes. "With a few more such as this great hombre, who is firm and peaceful together, I should find my days full of trouble with a hot-blooded Manuel to deal with them. But with you, Senor, I have no fear. Something there is in the face of this Senor Seem'son which pleases me; we shall be friends, and he shall stay and plant his garden and build his house where it pleases him to do. You may tell him that I say so, and that I shall rely upon his honor to pay me for the land a reasonable price when the American government places its seal beside the seal on his Majesty's grant. For that it will be done I am very sure. The land is mine, even though I have no tablet of stone to proclaim from the Creator my right to call it so. But he shall have his home if he is honest, without swimming across the ocean to find it."
"Wall, now, that's fair enough fer anybody. Hey, Mary! Come on out and git acquainted with yer neighbor's girl. Likely-lookin' young woman," he passed judgment, nodding towards Teresita. "Skittish, mebby—young blood most gen'rally is, when there's any ginger in it. What's yer name, mister? I want yuh all to meet the finest little woman in the world—Mrs. Jerry Simpson. We've pulled in the harness together fer twelve year, now, so I guess I know! Come out, Mary."
She came shyly from the makeshift tent, her dingy brown sunbonnet in her hand, and the redoubtable Tige walking close to her shapeless brown skirt. And although her face was tanned nearly as brown as her bonnet, with the desert sun and desert winds of that long, weary journey in search of a home, it was as delicately modeled as that of the girl who rode forward to greet her; and sweet with the sweetness of soul which made that big man worship her. Her hair was a soft gold such as one sees sometimes upon the head of a child or in the pictures of angels, and it was cut short and curled in distracting little rings about her head, and framed softly her smooth forehead. Her eyes were brown and soft and wistful—with a twinkle at the corners, nevertheless, which brightened them wonderfully; and although her mouth drooped slightly with the same wistfulness, a little smile lurked there also, as though her life had been spent largely in longing for the unattainable, and in laughing at herself because she knew the futility of the longing.
"I hope you've taken a good look at Jerry's face," she said, "and seen that he ain't half as bad as he tries to make out. Jerry'll make a fine neighbor for any man if he's let be; and we do want a home of our own, awful bad! We was ten years paying for a little farm back in Illinois, and then we lost it at the last minute because there was something wrong with the deed, and we didn't have any money to go to law about it. Jerry didn't tell you that; but it's that makes him talk kinda bitter, sometimes. He was terrible disappointed about losing the farm. And when we took what we had left and struck out, he said he was going as far as he could get and be away from lawyers and law, and make us a home on land that nobody but the Lord laid any claim to. So he picked out this place; and then along come that Spaniard and a lot of fellows with him and said we hadn't no right here. So I hope you won't blame Jerry for being a little mite uppish. That Spaniard got him kinda wrought up."
Her voice was as soft as her eyes, and winsome as her wistful little smile. She had those four smiling with her in sheer sympathy before she had spoken three sentences; and the two who did not understand her words smiled just as sympathetically as the two who knew what she was talking about.
"Tell the senora I am sorry, and she shall stay; and my mother will give her hens and a bottle of her very good medicine, which Manuel drinks so greedily," Teresita cried, when Dade told her what the woman said, and leaned impulsively and held out her hand. "I would do as the Americanos do, and shake the hands for a new friendship," she explained, blushing a little. "We shall be friends. Senor Hunter, tell the pretty senora that I say we shall be friends. Amiga mia, I shall call her, and I shall learn the Americano language, that we may talk together."
She meant every word of it, Dade knew; and with a troublesome, squeezed feeling in his throat he interpreted her speech with painstaking exactness.
Mrs. Jerry took the senorita's hand and smiled up at her with the brightness of tears in her eyes. "You've got lots of friends, honey," she said simply, "and I've left all of mine so far behind me they might as well be dead, as far as ever seeing 'em again is concerned; so it's like finding gold to find a woman friend away out here. I ain't casting no reflections on Jerry, mind," she hastened to warn them, blinking the tears away and leaving the twinkle in full possession; "but good as he is, and satisfying as his company is, he ain't a woman. And, my dear, a woman does get awful hungry sometimes for woman-talk!"
"Santa Maria! that must be true. She shall come and let my mother be her friend also. I will send a carriage, or if she can ride—ask the big senor if he has no horses!"
Jack it was who took up right willingly the burden of translation, for the pure pleasure of repeating the senorita's words and doing her a service; and Dade dropped back beside the don, where he thought he belonged, and stayed there.
"Wall, I ain't got any horses, but I got two of the derndest mules you ever seen, mister. Moll and Poll's good as any mustang in this valley. Mary and me can ride 'em anywheres; that's why I brung 'em along, to ride in case we had to eat the cattle."
"Then they must surely ride Moll and Poll to visit my mother!" the senorita declared with her customary decisiveness. "Padre mio!"
Obediently the don accepted the responsibility laid upon him by his sole-born who ruled him without question, and made official the invitation. It was not what he had expected to do; he was not quite sure that it was what he wanted to do; but he did it, and did it with the courtliness which would have flowered his invitation to the governor to honor his poor household by his presence; he did it because his daughter had glanced at him and said "My father?" in a certain tone which he knew well.
Something else was done, which no one had expected to do when the four galloped up to the trespassers. Jack and Dade dismounted and helped Jerry unload the logs from the wagon, for one thing; while Teresita inspected Mrs. Jerry's ingenious domestic makeshifts and managed somehow, with Mrs. Jerry's help, to make the bond of mutual liking serve very well in the place of intelligible speech. For another, the don fairly committed himself to the promise of a peon or two to help in the further devastation of the trees upon the Picardo mountain slope behind the little, natural meadow, which Jerry Simpson had so calmly appropriated to his own use.
"He is honest," Don Andres asserted more than once on the ride home, perhaps in self-justification for his soft dealing. "He is honest; and when he sees that the land is mine, he will pay; or if he does not pay, he will go—and tilled acres and a cabin will not harm me. Valencia, if he marries the daughter of Carlos (as the senora says will come to pass), will be glad to have a cabin to live in apart from the mother of his wife, who is a shrew and will be disquieting in any man's household. Therefore, Senor Hunter, you may order the peons to assist the big hombre and his beautiful senora, that they may soon have a hut to shelter them from the rains. It is not good to see so gentle a woman endure hardship within my boundary. Many tules, they will need," he added after a minute, "and it is unlikely that the Senor Seem'son understands the making of a thatch. Diego and Juan are skillful; and the tules they lay upon a roof will let no drop of rain fall within the room. Order them to assist."
"I shall tell Margarita to bake many little cakes," cried Teresita, riding up between her father and Dade, that she might assist in the planning. "And madre mia will give me coffee and sugar for the pretty senora. So soft is her voice, like one of my pigeons! And her hair is more beautiful than the golden hair of our Blessed Lady at Dolores. Oh, if the Blessed Virgin would make me as beautiful as she, and as gentle, I should—I should finish the altar cloth immediately, which I began two years ago!"
"Thou art well enough as thou art," comforted her father, trying to hide his pride in her under frowning brows, and to sterilize the praise with a tone of belittlement.
"I love that pretty senora," sighed Teresita, turning in the saddle to glance wistfully back at the meager little camp. "She shall have the black puppy Rosa gave me when last I was at the Mission San Jose. But I hope," she added plaintively, like the child she was at heart, "she will make that big, ugly beast they called Tige be kind to her; and the milk must be warm to the finger when Chico is fed. To-night, Senor Allen, you shall teach me Americano words that I may say to the senora what is necessary, for the happiness of my black puppy. I must learn to say that her name is Chico, and that the milk must be warm to the finger, and that the big dog must be kind."
AN ILL WIND
A wind rose in the night, blowing straight out of the north; a wind so chill that the senora unpacked extra blankets and distributed them lavishly amongst the beds of her household, and the oldest peon at the hacienda (who was Gustavo and a prophet more infallible than Elijah) stared into the heavens until his neck went lame; and predicted much cold, so that the frost would surely kill the fruit blossoms on the slope behind the house; and after that much rain.
Don Andres, believing him implicitly, repeated the warning to Dade; and Dade, because that was now his business, rode here and there, giving orders to the peons and making sure that all would be snug when the storm broke.
The Senorita Teresa, bethinking her of the "pretty senora" who would have scant shelter in that canvas-topped wagon-box, even though it had been set under the thickest branches of a great live oak, called guardedly to Diego who was passing, and ordered Tejon, her swiftest little mustang, saddled and held ready for her behind the last hut, where it could not be seen from the house.
Tejon, so named by his mistress because he was gray like a badger, hated wind, which the senorita knew well. Also, when the hatred grew into rebellion, it needed a strong hand indeed to control him, if the mood seized him to run. But the senorita was in a perverse mood, and none but Tejon would she ride; even though—or perhaps because—she knew that his temper would be uncertain.
She wanted to beg the pretty Senora Simpson to come and stay with them until the weather cleared and the cabin was finished. But more than that she wanted to punish Senor Jack Allen for laughing when she tried to speak the Americano sentence he had taught her the night before, and got it all backwards. Senor Jack would be frightened, perhaps, when he learned that she had ridden away alone upon Tejon; he would ride after her—perhaps. And she would not talk to him when he found her, but would be absolutely implacable in her displeasure, so that he would be speedily reduced to the most abject humility.
Diego, when she ran stealthily across the patio, her riding-habit flapping about her feet in the wind, looked at her uneasily as if he would like to remonstrate; but being a mere peon, he bent silently and held his calloused, brown palm for the senorita's foot; reverently straightened the flapping skirt when she was mounted, and sent a hasty prayer to whatever saint might be counted upon to watch most carefully over a foolish little Spanish girl.
"An evil spirit is in the caballo to-day," Diego finally ventured to inform his mistress gravely. "For a week he has not felt the weight of saddle, and he loves not the trees which sway and sing, or the wind whistling in his ears."
"And for that he pleases me much," retorted the senorita, and touched Tejon with her spurred heel, so that he came near upsetting Diego with the lunge he gave.
When the peon recovered his balance, he stood braced against the wind, and with both hands held his hat upon his head while he watched her flying down the slope and out of sight amongst the trees. No girl in all the valley rode better than the Senorita Teresa Picardo, and Diego knew it well and boasted of it to the peons of other hacendados; but for all that he was ill-at-ease, and when, ten minutes later, he came upon Valencia at the stable, he told him of the madness of the senorita.
"Tejon she would ride, and none other; and to-day he is a devil. Twice he would have bitten my shoulder while I was saddling, and that is the sign that his heart is full of wickedness. Me, I would have put the freno Chilene (Chilian bit) in his mouth—but that would start him bucking; for he hates it because then he cannot run."
Valencia, a little later, met the new majordomo and repeated what Diego had said; and Dade, catching a little of the uneasiness and yet not wanting to frighten the girl's father with the tale, made it his immediate business to find Jack and tell him that Teresita had ridden away alone upon a horse that neither Diego nor Valencia considered safe.
Jack, at first declaring that he wouldn't go where he plainly was not wanted, at the end of an uncomfortable half-hour borrowed Surry, because he was fleet as any mustang in the valley, and rode after her.
In this wise did circumstances and Jack obey the piqued desire of the senorita.
After the first headlong half mile, Tejon became the perfect little saddle-pony which fair weather found him; and Teresita, cheated of her battle of wills and yet too honest to provoke him deliberately, began to think a little less of her own whims and more of the Senora Simpson, housed miserably beneath the canvas covering of the prairie schooner.
She found Mrs. Jerry sitting inside, with a patchwork quilt over her shoulders, her eyes holding a shade more of wistfulness and less twinkle, perhaps, but with her lips quite ready to smile upon her visitor. Teresita sat down upon a box and curiously watched the pretty senora try to make a small, triangular piece of cloth cover a large, irregular hole in the elbow of the big senor's coat sleeve. Sometimes, when she turned it so, the hole was nearly covered—except that there was the frayed rent at the bottom still grinning maliciously up at the mender.
"'Patch beside patch is neighborly, but patch upon patch is beggarly!'" quoted Mrs. Jerry, at the moment forgetting that the girl could not understand.
Whereupon Teresita bethought her of her last night's lesson, and replied slowly and solemnly: "My dear Mrs. Seem'son, how—do—you—do?"
"Mrs. Seem'son," realizing the underlying friendliness of the carefully enunciated greeting, flushed with pleasure and for a minute forgot all about the patch problem.
"Why, honey, you've been learnin' English jest so's you can talk to me!" She leaned and kissed the girl where the red blood of youth dyed brightest the Latin duskiness of the cheek. "I wish't you could say some more. Can't you?"
Teresita could; but her further store of American words related chiefly to the diet and general well-being of one very small and very black pup, which was at that moment sleeping luxuriously in the chimney corner at home; and without the pup the words would be no more than parrot-chattering. So the senorita shook her head and smiled, and Mrs. Jerry went back to the problem of the small patch and the large hole.