Hampered thus by having no common language between them, Teresita failed absolutely to accomplish her mission.
Mrs. Jerry, hazily guessing at the invitation without realizing any urgent need of immediate acceptance, shook her head and pointed to her pitifully few household appurtenances, and tried to make it plain that she had duties which kept her there in the little camp which she pathetically called home.
Teresita gathered that the pretty senora did not wish to leave that great, gaunt hombre who was her husband. So, when she could no longer conceal her shiverings, and having no hope that the big senor would understand her any better when he returned with the load of logs he and the peons were after, she rose and prepared to depart. Surely the Senor Jack, if he were going to follow, would by this time be coming, and the hope rather hastened her adieu.
"Adios, amiga mia," she said, her eyes innocently turning from the Senora Simpson to scan stealthily the northern slope.
"Good-by, honey. Come again and see me. Jerry knows a few Spanish words, and I'll make him learn 'em to me so I can talk a little of your kind, next time. And tell your mother I'm obliged for the wine; and them dried peaches tasted fine, after being without so long. Shan't I hold your horse while you git on? Seems to me he's pretty frisky for a girl to be riding; but I guess you're equal to him!"
Teresita smiled vaguely. She had no idea of what the woman was saying, and she was beginning to wish that she had not tried in just this way to punish the Senor Jack; if he were here now, he could make the Senora Simpson understand that the storm would be a very dreadful one—else Gustavo was a liar, and whom should one believe?
Even while she was coaxing Tejon alongside a log and persuading him to stand so until she was in the saddle, she was generously forswearing Senor Jack's punishment that she might serve the pretty senora who had Tejon by the bit and was talking to him softly in words he had never heard before in his life. She resolved that if she met Senor Jack, she would ask him to come back with her and explain to the senora about the cold and the rain, and urge her to accept the hospitality of her neighbors.
For that reason she looked more anxiously than before for some sign of him riding towards her through the fields of flowering mustard that heaved in the wind like the waves on some strange, lemon-colored sea tossing between high, green islands of oak and willow. Surely that fool Diego would never keep the still tongue! He would tell, when some one missed her. If he did not, or if Senor Allen was an obstinate pig of a man and would not come, then she would tell Senor Hunter, who was always so kind, though not so handsome as the other, perhaps.
Senor Hunter's eyes were brown—and she had looked into brown eyes all her life. But the blue! The blue eyes that could so quickly change lighter or darker that they bewildered one; and could smile, or light flames that could wither the soul of one.
Even the best rider among the Spanish girls as far south as Paso Robles should not meditate so deeply upon the color of a senor's eyes that she forgets the horse she is riding, especially when the horse is Tejon, whose heart is full of wickedness.
A coyote, stalking the new-made nest of a quail, leaped out of the mustard and gave Tejon the excuse he wanted, and the dreaming senorita was nearly unseated when he ducked and whirled in his tracks. He ran, and she could not stop him, pull hard as she might. If he had only run towards home! But instead, he ran down the valley, because then he need not face the wind; and he tried to outstrip the wind as he went.
It was when they topped a low knoll and darted under the wide, writhing branches of a live oak, that Jack glimpsed them and gave chase; and his heart forgot to beat until he saw them in the open beyond, and knew that she had not been swept from the saddle by a low branch. He leaned lower over Surry's neck and felt gratefully the instant response of the horse; he had thought that Surry was running his best on such uneven ground; but even a horse may call up an unsuspected reserve of speed or endurance, if his whole heart is given to the service of his master; there was a perceptible quickening and a lengthening of stride, and Jack knew then that Surry could do no more and keep his feet. Indeed, if he held that pace for long without stumbling, he would prove himself a more remarkable horse than even Dade declared him to be.
He hoped to overtake the girl soon, for in the glimpses he got of her now and then, as she flew across an open space, he saw that she was putting her whole weight upon the reins; and that should make a sufficient handicap to the gray to wipe out the three-hundred-yard distance between them. It did not seem possible that Tejon could be running as fast as Surry; and yet, after a half-mile or so of that killing pace, Jack could not see that he was gaining much. Perhaps it was his anxiety to overtake her that made the chase seem interminable; for presently they emerged upon the highway which led south to Santa Clara and so on down the valley, and he saw, on a straight, open stretch, that he was much nearer; so near he could see that her hair was down and blowing about her face in a way that must have blinded her at times.
Tejon showed no disposition to stop, however; and Jack, bethinking him of the trick Dade had played upon the Vigilantes with his riata, threw off the loop that held it. If he could get close enough, he meant to lasso the horse unless she managed by that time to get him under control. Now that they were in the road, Surry's stride was more even, and although his breathing was becoming audible, he held his pace wonderfully well—though for that matter, Tejon also seemed to be running just as fast as at first, in spite of that steady pull; indeed, Tejon knew the trick of curling his chin down close to his chest, so that the girl's strength upon the reins was as nothing.
Jack was almost close enough to make it seem worth while to call encouragement, when a horseman appeared suddenly from behind a willow clump and pulled up in astonishment, as he saw Teresita bearing down upon him like a small whirlwind. Whereupon Tejon, recognizing horse and rider and knowing of old that they meant leisurely riding and much chatter, with little laughs for punctuation, slowed of his own accord and so came up to the man at his usual easy lope, and stopped before him.
So quickly did it happen that a witness might easily have sworn in perfect good faith that the girl was fleeing from Jack Allen and pulled up thankfully when she met Jose Pacheco. One could not blame Jose for so interpreting the race, or for the anger that blazed in his eyes for the pursuer, even while his lips parted in a smile at the coming of the girl. He reined in protectingly between her and the approaching Jack, and spoke soothingly because of her apparent need.
"Be not frightened, querida mia. Thou art safe with me—and the accursed gringo will get a lesson he will not soon forget, for daring—"
Teresita, looking back, discovered Jack behind her. He was pulling Surry in, now, and he held his riata in one hand as though he were ready to use it at a moment's notice, and blank astonishment was on his face. That, perhaps, was because of Jose and Jose's hostile attitude, standing crosswise of the trail like that, and scowling while he waited, with the fingers of his right hand fumbling inside his sash—for his dagger, perchance! Teresita smiled wickedly, in appreciation of the joke on them both.
"Do not kill him, Jose," she begged caressingly. "Truly he did not harm me! I but ran from him because—" She sent a smile straight to the leaping heart of Jose, and fumbled with her tossing banner of hair, and turned eyes of innocent surprise on the Senor Allen, who needed some punishment—and was in fair way to get it.
"What is the pleasure of the senor?" Jose's voice was as smooth and as keen as the dagger-blade under his sash. "His message must indeed be urgent to warrant such haste! You would do well to ride back as hastily as you came; for truly a blind man could see that the senorita has not the smallest desire for your presence. As for me—" As for him, he smiled a sneer and a threat together.
Jack looked to the girl for a rebuke of the man's insult; but Teresita's head was drooped and tilted sidewise while she made shift to braid her hair, and if she heard she surely did not seem to heed.
"As for you, it wouldn't be a bad idea for you to mind your own business," Jack retorted bluntly. "The senorita doesn't need any interpreter. The senorita is perfectly well-qualified to speak for herself. She knows—"
"The senorita knows whom she can trust—and it is not a low dog of a gringo, who would be rotting now with a neck stretched by the hangman's rope, if he had but received his deserts; murderer of five men in one day, men of his own race at that! Gambler! loafer—"
At the press of silver rowels against his sides, Surry lunged forward. But Teresita's horse sidled suddenly between the two men.
"Senor Jack, we will go now, if this wicked caballo of mine will consent to do his running towards home. Thank you, Jose, for stopping him for me; truly, I think he was minded to carry me to Santa Clara, whether I wished to go or not! But doubtless Senor Jack would have overtaken him soon. Adios, Jose. Gracias, amigo mio!" Having put her hair into some sort of confinement, she picked up her reins and smiled at Jose and then at Jack in a way to tie the tongues of them both; though their brows were black with the hatred which must, if they met again, bear fruit of violence.
Fifty yards away, Teresita looked back and waved a hand at the gay horseman who still stood fair across the highway and stared blankly after them.
"Poor Jose!" she murmured mischievously. "Very puzzled and unhappy he looks. I wonder if the privilege of tearing you in pieces would not bring the smile to his lips? Senor Jack, if so be you should ever desire death, will you let Jose do the killing? To serve you thus would give him great pleasure, I am sure."
Jack, usually so headlong in his speech and actions, rode a moody three minutes without replying. He was not a fool, even though he was rather deeply in love; he felt in her that feline instinct to torment which wise men believe they can detect in all women; and angry as he was at Jose's deliberate insults, he knew quite well in his heart that Teresita had purposely provoked them.
"I've heard," he said at last, looking at her with the hard glint in his eyes that thrilled her pleasurably, "that all women are either angels or devils. I believe you're both, Senorita!"
Teresita laughed and pouted her lips at him. "Such injustice! Am I then to be blamed because Jose has a bad temper and speech hotter than the enchilladas of Margarita? I could love him for his rages! When the Blessed Mary sends me a lover—" She looked over her shoulder and sighed romantically, hiding the laughter in her eyes and the telltale twist of her lips as best she could, with lashes downcast and face averted.
Even a kitten the size of your two fists knows how to paw a mouse, even though it lacks the appetite for devouring it after the torture. One cannot logically blame Teresita. She merely used the weapons which nature put into her pink palms.
So engrossed was the senorita in her truly feminine game of cat-and-mouse that she quite forgot her worry over Mrs. Jerry until she was in her own room and smiling impishly at herself in the mirror, while she brushed the wind-tangles from her hair and planned fresh torment for the Senor Jack. The senorita liked to see his eyes darken and then light with the flames that thrilled her; and it was exceedingly pleasant to know that she could produce that effect almost whenever she chose. Also, her lips would curve of themselves whenever she thought of Jose's rage and subsequent bafflement when she rode off with Senor Jack; and of Senor Jack's black looks when she praised Jose afterwards. Truly they hated each other very much—those two caballeros! She was woman enough to know the reason why, and to find a great deal of pleasure in the knowledge.
Still smiling, she lifted a heavy lock of hair to the light and speculated upon the mystery of coloring. Black it was, except when the sun lighted it and brought a sheen that was almost blue; and Senor Jack's was neither red, as was the hair of the big Senor Simpson, nor brown nor gold, but a tantalizing mixture of all; especially where it waved it had many different shades, just as the light gold and the dark of the pretty senora's—It was then that remembrance came to the senorita and made her glance a self-accusing one, when she looked at her reflected face.
"Selfish, thoughtless one that thou art to forget that sweet senora!" she cried. And for punishment she pulled the lock of hair so that it hurt—a little. "I shall ask Senor Hunter if he will not send the carriage for her—and perhaps I shall go with him to bring her; though truly she will never leave the big hombre who speaks so many words over such slight matters. I am glad I did not yet carry Chico to live there in that small camp. Till the house is finished, he shall stay with me. Truly the storm would kill him if he were there. But perhaps the storm will not be so great, after all—not so great as is the storm in the hearts of those two who met and would have fought, had I not so skillfully prevented it! Santa Maria, I truly must have been inspired, to act like the dove with the branch of the olive when I flew between them; and the eyes of Jose were blazing; and Senor Jack—" There came the smile again, and the dawdling of the brush while she thought of those two. So the pretty senora was forgotten, after all, and left to shiver over her mending in the prairie schooner because Teresita was a spoiled child with more hearts than it is good for a girl to play with.
As a matter of fact, however, the pretty senora was quite accustomed to discomfort in varying degrees, and gave less thought to the weather than did the more tenderly sheltered women of the valley, so that no harm came of the forgetfulness; especially since the storm fell far short of Gustavo's expectations and caused that particular prophet the inconvenience of searching his soul and the heavens for an explanation of the sunshine that reprehensibly bathed the valley next day in its soft glow.
Also, no immediate harm resulted from the rage of the two caballeros, although not even the most partial judge could give the credit to Teresita's "olive branch." Chance herself stepped in, and sent a heavy, dead branch crashing down from a swaying oak upon the head and right shoulder of Jose, while he was riding into his own patio. Whereupon Jose, who had been promising himself vengefully that he would send Manuel immediately with a challenge to the gringo who had dared lift eyes to the Senorita Teresa Picardo, instantly forgot both his love and his hate in the oblivion that held him until nightfall.
After that his stiffened muscles and the gash in his scalp gave him time for meditation; and meditation counseled patience. The gringo would doubtless go to the rodeo, and he would meet him there without the spectacular flavor of a formal challenge. For Jose was a decent sort of a fellow and had no desire to cheapen his passion or cause the senorita the pain of public gossip. It was that same quality of dignity in his love that had restrained him from seeking a deliberate quarrel with Jack before now; and though he fumed inwardly while his outer hurts healed, he resolved to wait. The rodeo would give him his chance.
Because it is not in the nature of the normal human to keep his soul always under the lock and key of utter silence, a little of his hate and a little of his hope seeped into the ears of Manuel, whose poultices of herbs were doing their work upon the bruised muscles of Jose's shoulder, and whose epithets against the two gringos who were responsible for his exile from the Picardo hacienda had the peculiar flavor of absolute sincerity. Frequently he cursed them while he changed the poultices; and Don Jose, listening approvingly, added now and then a curse of his own, and a vague prediction of how he meant to teach the blue-eyed one a lesson which he would weep at remembering—if he lived to remember anything.
Manuel did not mean to tattle; he merely let fall a word or two to Valencia, whom he met occasionally in the open and accused bitterly of having a treacherous friendship for the gringos, and particularly for the blue-eyed one.
"Because that mongrel whose hair is neither red nor yellow nor black speaks praise to you of your skill, perchance, and because he makes you laugh with the foolish tales he tells, you would turn against your own kind, Valencia. No honest Spaniard can be a friend of the gringos. Of the patron," he added rather sorrowfully, "I do not speak, for truly he is in his dotage and therefore not to be judged too harshly. But you, Valencia—you should think twice before you choose a gringo for your friend; a gringo who speaks fair to the father that he may cover his love-making to the daughter, who is easily fooled, like all younglings.
"The young Don Jose will deal with that blue-eyed one, Valencia. Every day he swears it by all the saints. He but waits for the rodeo and until I have healed his shoulder—and then you shall see! There will be no love-making then for the gringo. Jose will have the senorita yet for his bride, just as the saints have desired since they played together in the patio and I watched them that they did not run into the corrals to be kicked in the head, perchance, by the mustangs we had there. Jose, I tell you, has loved her too long to stand now with the sombrero in hand while that arrogant hombre steals her away. When the shoulder is well—and truly, it was near broken—and when they meet at the rodeo, then you shall see what will happen to your new gringo friend."
Valencia did not quarrel with Manuel. He merely listened and smiled his startlingly sunny smile, and afterwards repeated Manuel's words almost verbatim to Jack. Later, he recounted as much as he considered politic to Don Andres himself, just to show how bitter Manuel had become and how unjust. Valencia, it must be admitted, was not in any sense working in the interests of peace. He looked forward with a good deal of eagerness to that meeting of which Manuel prated. He had all the faith of your true hero-worshiper in his new friend, and with the story of that last eventful day which Jack had spent in San Francisco to build his faith upon, he confidently expected to see Jose learn a much-needed lesson in humility—aye, and Manuel also.
Since even the best-natured gossip is like a breeze to fan the flames of dissension, Don Andres spent an anxious hour in devising a plan that would preserve the peace he loved better even than prosperity. While he smoked behind the passion vines on the veranda, he thought his way slowly from frowns to a smile of satisfaction, and finally called a peon scurrying across the patio to stand humbly before him while he gave a calm order. His majordomo he would see, as speedily as was convenient to a man as full of ranch business as Dade Hunter found himself.
Dade, tired and hot from a forenoon in the saddle inspecting the horses that were to bear the burden of rodeo work, presently came clanking up to the porch and lifted the sombrero off his sweat-dampened forehead thankfully, when the shade of the vines enveloped him.
The eyes of the don dwelt pleasedly upon the tanned face of his foreman. More and more Don Andres was coming to value the keen common-sense which is so rare, and which distinguished Dade's character almost as much as did the kindliness that made nearly every man his friend.
The don had already fallen into the habit of presenting his orders under the guise of ideas that needed the confirmation of the majordomo, before they became definite plans; and it speaks much for those two that neither of them suspected that it was so. Thus, Don Andres' solution of the problem of preserving peace became the subject for a conference that lasted more than an hour. The don was absolutely candid; so candid that he spoke upon a delicate subject, and one that carried a sting of which he little dreamed.
"One factor I cannot help recognizing," he said slowly. "I am not blind, nor is the senora blind, to the—the—friendship that is growing between Senor Jack and our daughter. We had hoped—but we have long been resolved that in matters of the heart, our daughter shall choose for herself so long as she does not choose one altogether unworthy; which we do not fear, for to that extent we can protect her by admitting to our friendship only those in whose characters we have some confidence. Now that we understand each other so well, amigo, I will say that I have had some correspondence with friends in San Francisco, who have been so good as to make some investigations in my behalf. Their Vigilance Committee," he said, smiling, "was not the only tribunal which weighed evidence for and against your friend, nor was it the only vindication he has received.
"I am assured that in the trouble which brought him to my house he played the part of an honest gentleman fighting to uphold the principles which all honest men espouse; and while he is hot-tempered at times, and perhaps more thoughtless than we could wish, I hear no ill of him save the natural follies of high-stomached youth.
"Therefore I am willing to abide by the choice of my daughter, whose happiness is more dear to her parents than any hope they may have cherished of the welding of two families who have long been friends. I myself," he added reminiscently, "fled to the priest with my sweetheart as if all the fiends of hell pursued us, because her parents had chosen for her a husband whom she could not love. Since we know the pain of choosing between a parent's wishes and the call of the heart, we are resolved that our child shall be left free to choose for herself. Therefore, I think our plan is a wise one; and the result must be as the saints decree."
Dade, because he was engrossed with stifling the ache he had begun to think was dead because it had grown numb, bowed his head without speaking his assent and rose to his feet.
"I'll tell Jack," he said, as he started for the stables. "I guess he'll do it, all right."
BILL WILSON GOES VISITING
"I Don't know what you've been doing to Jose Pacheco, lately," was Dade's way of broaching the subject, "but Don Andres asked me to 'persuade' you not to go on rodeo, on account of some trouble between you and Jose."
"He wants my scalp, is all," Jack explained easily, picking burrs from the fringe of his sash—burrs he had gotten when he ran a race with Teresita from the farther side of the orchard to the spring, a short time before. "Valencia told me—and he got it from Manuel—that Jose is right on the warpath. If it wasn't for his being laid up—"
"Oh, I know. You'd like to go over and have it out with him. But you can't. The Pachecos and the Picardos are almost like one family. I don't suppose Jose ever stayed away from here so long since he was a baby, as he has since we came. It's bad enough to keep old friends away, without mixing up a quarrel. Have you seen Jose lately? Don Andres seemed to think so, but I told him you'd have said something about it to me if you had."
"I met him in the trail, a week or so ago," Jack admitted with manifest reluctance. "He wasn't overly friendly, but there wasn't any real trouble, if that's what you're afraid of." He looked sidelong at the other, saw the hurt in Dade's eyes at this evidence of the constraint growing intangibly between them, and laughed defiantly.
"Upon my soul!" he exclaimed, "one would think I was simple-minded, the way you act! D'you think a man never scowled my way before? D'you think I'm afraid of Jose? D'you think I don't know enough to take care of myself? What the devil do you think? Can't go on rodeo—you're afraid I might get hurt! I ain't crazy to go, for that matter; but I don't know as I relish this guardian-angel stunt you're playing. You've got your hands full without that. You needn't worry about me; I've managed to squeak along so far without getting my light put out—"
"By being a tolerably fair shot, yes," Dade assented, his face hardening a little under the injustice. "But since I'm hired to look after Don Andres' interests, you're going to do what I tell you. You'll stay here and boss the peons while I'm gone. A friendship between two families that has lasted as many years as you are old, ain't going to be busted up now, if I can help it. It's strained to the snapping-point right now, just because the don is friendly with us gringos. Of course, we can't help that. He had his ideas on the subject before he ever saw me or you. Just the same, it's up to us not to do the snapping; and I know one gringo that's going to behave himself if I have to take him down and set on him!"
"Whee-ee! Somebody else is hitting the war-post, if I know the signs!" Dade stirred to anger always tickled Jack immensely, perhaps because of its very novelty, and restored him to good humor. "Have it your own way, then, darn you! I don't want to go on rodeo, nohow."
"I know that, all right," snapped Dade, and started off with his hat tilted over his eyes. No one, he reminded himself, would want to spend a month or so riding the range when he could stay and philander with as pretty a Spanish girl as ever played the game of cat-and-mouse with a man. And Jack never had been the kind to go looking for trouble; truth to tell, he had never found it necessary, for trouble usually flew to meet him as a needle flies to the magnet.
But, a wound is not necessarily a deadly one because it sends excruciating pain-signals to a man's heart and brain; and love seldom is fatal, however painful it may be. Dade was slowly recovering, under the rather heroic treatment of watching his successor writhe and exult by turns, as the mood of the maiden might decree. Strong medicine, that, to be swallowed with a wry face, if you will; but it is guaranteed to cure if the sufferer is not a mental and moral weakling.
Dade was quite ready to go out to rodeo work; indeed, he was anxious to go. But, not being a morbid young man, he did not contemplate carrying a broken heart with him. Teresita was sweet and winsome and maddeningly alluring; he knew it, he felt it still. Indeed, he was made to realize it every time the whim seized her to punish Jack by smiling upon Dade. But she was as capricious as beauty usually is, and he knew that also; and after being used several times as a club with which to beat Jack into proper humility (and always seeing very clearly that he was merely the club and nothing more) he had almost reached the point where he could shrug shoulders philosophically at her coquetry; and what is better, do it without bitterness. At least, he could do it when he had not seen her for several hours, which made rodeo time a relief for which he was grateful.
What hurt him most, just now, was the constraint between him and Jack; time was when Jack would have told him immediately of any unpleasant meeting with Jose. It never occurred to Dade that he himself had fostered the constraint by his moody aloofness when he was fighting the first jealous resentment he had ever felt against the other in the years of their constant companionship. An unexpected slap on the shoulder almost sent him headlong.
"Say, old man, I didn't mean it," Jack began contritely, referring perhaps to his petulant speech, rather than to his mode of making his presence known. "But—come over here in the shade, and let's have it out once for all. I know you aren't stuck up over being majordomo, but all the same you're not the old Dade, whether you know it or not. You go around as if—well—you know how you've been. What I wanted to say is, what's the matter? Is it anything I've said or done?"
He sat down on the stone steps of a hut used for a storehouse and reached moodily for his smoking material. "I know I didn't say anything about running up against Jose—but it wasn't anything beyond a few words; and, Dade, you've been almighty hard to talk to lately. If you've got anything against me—"
"Oh, quit it!" Dade's face glowed darkly with the blood which shame brought there. He opened his lips to say more, took a long breath instead, closed them, and looked at Jack queerly. For one reckless moment he meditated a plunge into that perfect candor which may be either the wisest or the most foolish thing a man may do in all his life.
"I didn't think you noticed it," he said, his voice lowered instinctively because of the temptation to tell the truth, and his glance wandering absently over to the corral opposite, where Surry stood waiting placidly until his master should have need of him. "There has been a regular brick wall between us lately. I felt it myself and I blamed you for it. I—"
"It wasn't my building," Jack cut in eagerly. "It's you, you old pirate. Why, you'd hardly talk when we happened to be alone, and when I tried to act as if nothing was wrong, you'd look so darned sour I just had to close my sweet lips like the petals of a—"
"Cabbage," supplied Dade dryly, and placed his cigarette between lips that twitched.
Former relations having thus been established after their own fashion, Dade began to wonder how he had ever been fool enough to think of confessing his hurt. It would have built that wall higher and thicker; he saw it now, and with the lighting of his cigarette he swung back to a more normal state of mind than he had been in for a month.
"I'm going up toward Manuel's camp, pretty soon," he observed lazily, eying Jack meditatively through a thin haze of smoke. "Want to take a ride up that way and let the sun shine on your nice new saddle?" Though he called it Manuel's camp from force of habit, that hot-blooded gentleman had not set foot over its unhewn doorsill for three weeks and more.
Jack hesitated, having in mind the possibility of persuading Teresita that she ought to pay a visit to the Simpson cabin that day to display her latest accomplishment by asking in real, understandable English, how the pup was getting along; and to show the pretty senora the proper way to pat tortillas out thin and smooth, as Margarita had been bribed to teach Teresita herself to do.
"Sure, I'll go," he responded, before the hesitation had become pronounced, and managed to inject a good deal of his old heartiness into the words.
"I'm going to have the cattle pushed down this way," Dade explained, "so you can keep an eye on them from here and we won't have to keep up that camp. Since they made Bill Wilson captain of the Vigilantes, there isn't quite so much wholesale stealing as there was, anyway, and enough vaqueros went with Manuel so I'll need every one that's left. I'll leave you Pedro, because he can't do any hard riding, after that fall he got the other day. The two of you can keep the cattle pretty well down this way."
"All right. Say, what was it made you act so glum since we came down here?" Jack, as occasionally happens with a friend, was not content to forget a grievance while the cause of it remained clouded with mystery.
"Are you sore over that trouble I had in town? I know how you feel about—well, about killings; but, Dade, I had to. I hate it myself. You needn't think I like the idea, just because I haven't talked about it. A fellow feels different," he added slowly, "when it's white men. When we fought Injuns, I don't believe it worried either one of us to think we'd killed some. We were generally glad of it. But these others—they were mean enough and ornery enough; but they were humans. I was glad at the time, but that wore off. And I've caught you looking at me kinda queer, lately, as if you hated me, almost. You ought to know—"
"I know you're always going off half-cocked," chuckled Dade, quite himself again. "No, now you mention it, I don't like the idea of shooting first and finding out afterwards what it was all about, the way so many fellows have got in the habit of doing. Guns are all right in their place. And when you get away out where the law doesn't reach, and you have to look out for yourself, they come in mighty handy. But like every other kind of power, most men don't know when and how to use the gun argument; and they make more trouble than they settle, half the time. You had a right to shoot, that day, and shoot to kill. Why, didn't the Committee investigate you, first thing after Bill was elected, and find that you were justified? Didn't they wipe your reputation clean with their official document, that Bill sent you a copy of? No, that never bothered me at all, old man. You want to forget about it. You only saved the Committee the trouble of hanging 'em, according to Bill. Say, Valencia was telling me yesterday—"
"Well, what the dickens did ail you, then?"
Dade threw out both hands helplessly and gave a rueful laugh. "You're harder to dodge than an old cow when you've got her calf on the saddle," he complained.
"The trouble was," he explained gravely, "that these last boots of mine pinched like the devil, and I've been mad for a month because my feet are half a size bigger than yours. I wanted to stump you for a trade, only I knew yours would cripple me up worse than these did. But I've got 'em broke in now, so I can walk without tying my face into a hard knot. There's nothing on earth," he declared earnestly, "will put me on the fight as quick as a pair of boots that don't fit."
Jack paid tribute to Dade's mendaciousness by looking at him doubtfully, not quite sure whether to believe him; and Dade chuckled again, well pleased with himself. Even when Jack finally told him quite frankly that he was a liar, he only laughed and went over to where Surry stood rolling the wheel in his bit. He would not answer Jack's chagrined vilifications, except with an occasional amused invitation to go to the devil.
So the wall of constraint crumbled to the nothingness out of which it was built, and the two came close together again in that perfect companionship that may choose whatever medium the mood of man may direct, and still hold taut the bond of their friendship.
While they rode together up the valley, Jack told the details of the encounter with Jose, and declared that he was doing all that even Dade could demand of him by resisting the desire to ride down to Santa Clara and make Jose swallow his words.
"I'd have done it anyway, as soon as I brought Teresita home," he added, with a hint of apology for his seeming weakness. "But, darn it, I knew all the time that she made him think she was running away from me. It did look that way, when she stopped as soon as she met him; I can't swear right now whether Tejon was running away, or whether he was just simply running!" He laughed ruefully. "She's an awful little tease—just plumb full of the old Nick, even if she does look as innocent and as meek as their pictures of the Virgin Mary. She had us both guessing, let me tell you! He was pretty blamed insulting, though, and I'd have licked the stuffing out of him right then and there, if she hadn't swung in and played the joker the way she did. Made Jose look as if he'd been doused with cold water—and him breathing fire and brimstone the minute before.
"It was funny, I reckon—to Teresita; we didn't see the joke. Every time I bring up the subject of that runaway, she laughs; but she won't say whether it was a runaway, no matter how I sneak the question in. So I just let it go, seeing Jose is laid up now; only, next time I bump into Jose Pacheco, he's going to act pretty, or there's liable to be a little excitement.
"I wish I had my pistols. I wrote to Bill Wilson about them again, the other day; if he doesn't send them down pretty soon, I'm going after them." He stopped, his attention arrested by the peculiar behavior of a herd of a hundred or more cattle, a little distance from the road.
"Now, what do you suppose is the excitement over there?" he asked; and for answer Dade turned from the trail to investigate.
"Maybe they've run across the carcass of a critter that's been killed," he hazarded, "though this is pretty close home for beef thieves to get in their work. Most of the stock is killed north and east of Manuel's camp."
The cattle, moving restlessly about and jabbing their long, wicked horns at any animal that got in the way, lifted heads to stare at them suspiciously, before they turned tail and scampered off through the mustard. From the live oak under which they had been gathered came a welcoming shout, and the two, riding under the tent-like branches, craned necks in astonishment.
"Hello, Jack," spoke the voice again. "I'm almighty glad to see yuh! Hello, Dade, how are yuh?"
"Bill Wilson, by thunder!" Jack's tone was incredulous.
Bill, roosting a good ten feet from the ground on a great, horizontal limb, flicked the ashes from the cigar he was smoking and grinned down at them unabashed.
"You sure took your time about getting here," he remarked, hitching himself into a more comfortable posture on the rough bark. "I've been praying for you, two hours and more. Say, don't ever talk to me about hungry wolf-packs, boys. I'll take 'em in preference to the meek-eyed cow-bossies, any time."
They besought him for details and got them in Bill's own fashion of telling. Briefly, he had long had in mind a trip down to the Picardo ranch, just to see the boys and the country and have a talk over the stirring events of the past month; and, he added, he wanted to bring Jack his pistols himself, because it was not reasonable to expect any greaser to withstand the temptation of keeping them, once he got them in his hands.
Therefore, having plenty of excuses for venturing so far from his place, and having "tied the dove of peace to the ridge-pole" of town by means of some thorough work on the part of the new Committee, he had boldly set forth that morning, soon after sunrise, upon a horse which somebody had sworn that a lady could ride.
Bill confessed frankly that he wasn't any lady, however; and so, when the horse ducked unexpectedly to one side of the trail, because of something he saw in the long grass, Bill surprised himself very much by getting his next clear impression of the situation from the ground.
"I dunno how I got there, but I was there, all right, and it didn't feel good, either. But I'd been making up my mind to get off and try walking though, so I done it. Say, I don't see nothing so damned attractive about riding horseback, anyway!"
He yelled at the horse to stop, but it appeared that his whoas were so terrifying that the horse ran for its life. So Bill started to walk, beguiling the time, by soliloquizing upon—well, Bill put it this way: "I walked and I cussed, and I cussed and I walked, for about four hours and a half. Say! How do you make out it's only twenty miles?"
"Nearer thirty" corrected Dade, and Bill grunted and went on with the story of his misfortunes. Walking became monotonous, and he wearied of soliloquy before the cattle discovered him.
"Met quite a band, all of a sudden," said Bill. "They throned up their heads and looked at me like I was wild Injuns, and I shooed 'em off—or tried to. They did run a little piece, and then they all turned and looked a minute, and commenced coming again, heads up and tails a-rising. And," he added naively, "I commenced going!" He said he thought that he could go faster than they could come; but the faster he departed, the more eager was their arrival. "Till we was all of us on the gallop and tongues a-hanging."
Bill was big, and he was inclined to flesh because of no exercise more strenuous than quelling incipient riots in his place, or weighing the dust that passed into his hands and ownership. He must have run for some distance, since he swore by several forbidden things that the chase lasted for five miles—"And if you don't believe it, you can ride back up the trail till you come to the dent I made with my toes when I started in."
Other cattle came up and joined in the race, until Bill had quite a following; and when he was gasping for breath and losing hope of seeing another day, he came upon a live oak, whose branches started almost from the roots and inclined upward so gently that even a fat man who has lost his breath need not hesitate over the climbing.
"Thank the good Lord he don't cut all his trees after the same pattern," finished Bill fervently, "and that live oaks ain't built like redwoods. If they was, you'd be wiping off my coat-buttons right now, trying to identify my remains!"
Being polite young men, and having a sincere liking for Bill, they hid certain exchanges of grins and glances under their hat-brims (Bill being above them and the brims being wide) and did not by a single word belittle the escape he had had from man-eating cows. Instead, Dade coaxed him down from the tree and onto Surry, swearing solemnly that the horse was quite as safe as the limb to which Bill showed a disposition to cling. Bill was hard to persuade, but since Dade was a man who inspired faith instinctively, the exchange was finally accomplished, Bill still showing that strange, clinging disposition that made him grip the saddle-horn as a drowning man is said to grasp at a straw.
So they got him to the house, the two riding Jack's peppery palimeno with some difficulty; while Surry stepped softly that he might not dislodge that burden in the saddle, whose body lurched insecurely and made the horse feel at every step the ignorance of the man. They got him and themselves to the house; and his presence there did its part towards strengthening Don Andres' liking for gringos, while Bill himself gained a broader outlook, a keener perception of the rights of the native-born Californians.
Up in San Francisco there was a tendency to make light of those rights. It was commonly accepted that the old land grants were outrageous, and that the dons who prated of their rights were but land pirates who would be justly compelled by the government to disgorge their holdings. Bill had been in the habit of calling all Spaniards "greasers," just as the average Spaniard spoke of all Americans as "gringos," or heathenish foreigners.
But on the porch of Don Andres, his saddle-galled person reclining at ease in a great armchair behind the passion vines, with the fragile stem of a wine-glass twirling between his white, sensitive, gambler-fingers while he listened to the don's courtly utterances as translated faithfully by Dade (Jack being absent on some philandering mission of his own), big Bill Wilson opened his eyes to the other side of the question and frankly owned himself puzzled to choose.
"Seems like the men that came here when there wasn't anything but Injuns and animals, and built up the country outa raw material, ought to have some say now about who's going to reap the harvest," he admitted to Dade. "Don't look so much like gobbling, when you get right down to cases, does it? But at the same time, all these men that leave the east and come out here to make homes—seems like they've got a right to settle down and plow up a garden patch if they want to. They're going to do it, anyway. Looks like these grandees'll have to cash in their chips and quit, but it's a darned shame."
As to the town, Bill told them much that had happened. Politics were still turbulent; but Perkins' gang of hoodlums was fairly wiped out, and the Committee was working systematically and openly for the best interests of the town. There had been a hanging the week before; a public hanging in the square, after a trial as fair as any court properly authorized could give.
"Not much like that farce they pulled off that day with Jack," asserted Bill. "Real lawyers, we had, and real evidence for and against the feller, and tried him for real murder. Things are cooling down fast, up there, and you can walk the streets now without hanging onto your money with one hand and your gun with the other. Jack and you can come back any time. And say, Jack!" Having heard his voice beyond the vines, Bill made bold to call him somewhat peremptorily.
"There's some gold left, you know, that belongs to you. I didn't send it all down; didn't like the looks of that—er—" He checked himself on the point of saying greaser. "And seeing you're located down here for the summer, and don't need it, why don't you put it into lots? You two can pick up a couple of lots that will grow into good money, one of these days. Fact is, I've got a couple in mind. I'd like to see you fellows get some money to workin' for you. This horseback riding is too blamed risky."
"That looks reasonable to me," said Dade. "We've got the mine, of course, but the town ought to go on growing, and lots should be a good place to sink a thousand or two. I've got a little that ain't working." Then seeing the inquiring look in the eyes of Don Andres, he explained to him what Bill had suggested.
Don Andres nodded his white head approvingly. "The Senor Weelson is right," he said. "You would do well, amigos, to heed his advice."
"Just as Jack says," Dade concluded; and Jack amended that statement by saying it was just as Bill said. If Bill knew of a lot or two and thought it would be a good investment, he could buy them in their names. And Bill snorted at their absolute lack of business instinct and let the subject drop into the background with the remark that, for men that had come west with the gold fever, they surely did seem to care very little about the gold they came after.
"The fun of finding it is good enough," declared Jack, unashamed, "so long as we have all we need. And when we need more than we've got, there's the mine; we can always find more. Just now—"
He waved his cigarette towards the darkening hills; and in the little silence that followed they heard the sweet, high tenor of a vaquero somewhere, singing plaintively a Spanish love-song. When the voice trailed into a mournful, minor "Adios, adios," a robin down in the orchard added a brief, throaty note of his own.
Bill sighed and eased his stiffened muscles in the big chair. "Well, I don't blame either one of you," he drawled somewhat wistfully. "If I was fifteen years limberer and fifty pounds slimmer, I dunno but what I'd set into this ranch game myself. It's sure peaceful."
Foolishly they agreed that it was.
In those days of large leisure and cyclonic bursts of excitement and activity; of midday siestas and moonlight serenades—and a duel, perchance, at sunrise—the spring rodeo was one of the year's events, to be looked forward to all winter by the vaqueros; and when it was over, to be talked of afterwards for months. A mark from which to measure the passing of time, it was; a date for the fixing of incidents in the memory of men.
In the valley of Santa Clara, rodeo time really began when the Picardo vaqueros cinched saddles upon restive mustangs some misty morning, and with shouts and laughter and sombreros waving high over black heads in adieu to those who remained behind, swept down the slope like a charge of gayly caparisoned cavalry, driving the loose saddle horses before them. Past the stone and adobe wall of the home pasture, past the fences where the rails were held to their posts with rawhide thongs, which the coyotes sometimes chewed to pulp and so made extra work for the peons, they raced, exultant with life. Slim young Spaniards they were, clothed picturesquely in velvet and braid and gay sashes; with cumbersome, hairy chaparejos, high-crowned sombreros and big-roweled, silver spurs to mark their calling; caballeros to flutter the heart of a languorous-eyed senorita, and to tingle the pulse of the man who could command and see them ride gallantly to do his bidding.
Fairly in the midst of them, quite as gaudy to look upon and every whit as reckless in their horsemanship, rode Dade and Jack. If their hearts were not as light, their faces gave no sign; and their tongues flung back the good-humored jibes of their fellows in Spanish as fluent as any they heard.
When they left the highway and rode straight down the valley through the mustard that swept the chests of their plunging horses with dainty yellow and green, the two fell behind and slowing their horses to an easy lope, separated themselves from their exuberant fellows.
"I wish you were going along," Dade observed tritely. "If Jose Pacheco changes his mind and stays at home, I'll send you word and you can come on, if you want to."
"Thanks." Jack's tone, however, did not sound thankful. "If I wanted to go, do you think I'd hang back because he's going?"
"No, I don't. I think the prospect of a fine, large row would be a temptation; and I must say I'm kinda surprised that you've been able to resist it. Still, I realize there's compensations."
"Sure, there are. I never denied it, did I?"
"Never. I reckon you've sent by Bill Wilson for a trumpet to proclaim—"
"Oh, shut up. I think," Jack decided suddenly and without any visible cause, "I'll turn off here and ride around by Jerry Simpson's. Adios, old man, and heaps of good luck to you." He swung abruptly off to the right and galloped away, looking back over his shoulder when he had ridden a hundred paces, to wave his sombrero and shout a last word or two of farewell.
"Truly, Jose will be disappointed when he does not see Senor Jack amongst us," smiled Valencia, reining in beside Dade and looking after the departing horseman with friendly eyes. "Though if he had good sense, he would be thankful. Me, I should not like to have trouble with that friend of yours, Senor. In San Francisco they talk yet of that day when he fired three times from a galloping horse and killed three men. Dios! That was pretty shooting. I would have given much to see it. There will be few men so bold now as to make war with that blue-eyed hombre; but Jose is a fool, when his will is crossed. Me, I fight—yes, and love the heat of fighting in my blood; but I do not bellow threats before, as Jose has been doing. Carramba! To hear him, one would think he believed that men may die of curses; if they did, the Senor Jack would be lying now with candles burning at his head and his feet! Truly, love takes the sense out of a man quicker than wine."
Dade agreed with him, though his lips did not open to form any words upon the subject.
Their first stopping place was Jose's ranch down near Santa Clara, and he wondered just how far Jose's hatred of him would interfere with the traditions of hospitality. It was not likely that Jose's vaqueros would be ready to start that day; and although he carried his own camp equipment on pack-horses, and, guided by Valencia, ordered the camp set up in its accustomed place beside a little stream half a mile from the house, he sent many a questioning glance that way.
If he feared a hostile reception, he was soon reassured. Jose and Manuel speedily appeared, galloping side-by-side through the lush yellow and green. Jose's manner was irreproachable, his speech carefully considered. If his eyes lacked their usual warm glow of friendliness, it was because he could not bring that look at will to beam upon the guest whom his heart failed to welcome. He invited Dade to dinner with him; and Dade, hoping to establish a better understanding between them, accepted.
Dade had not lived half his life amongst the dark-skinned race for nothing. He sipped the home-made wine with Jose, talked of many things in his soft, easy-natured drawl, and by letting his inner friendliness with the whole world look out of his eyes when they dwelt upon his host, went Jose one better in courtesy. And Jose, sauntering afterward across the patio to the porch, met Manuel face to face and paid tribute to Don Andres' new majordomo in a single sentence.
"If all gringos were like this Senor Hunter, one could tolerate their coming to live amongst us," he said frankly.
"Si," grudged Manuel. "But then, he is not all gringo. Many years he dwelt with our people in Texas, so that he has the Spanish ways; but me, I want none of him."
Jose laughed without much mirth to lighten the sound. "The blue-eyed one—did you find from the vaqueros why he did not come? He need not have been afraid of me—not if his fame was earned honestly." If his tone were patronizing, Jose perhaps had some excuse, since Fame had not altogether passed him by with face averted.
"Part of the way he came, and turned back. The vaqueros do not know why, except Valencia. And Valencia—he is growing a gringo heart, like the patron. He will speak nothing but boasts of what that blue-eyed one can do. Me, I came near fighting with Valencia; only he would not do anything but smile foolishly, when I told him what I think of traitors like himself."
"Let him smile," advised Jose, "while he may." Which was not a threat, in spite of its resemblance to one, but rather a vague reference to the specter of trouble that stalks all men as a fox stalks a quail, and might some day wipe that broad smile from the face of Valencia, as it had swept all the gladness from his own.
He went back and smoked a final cigarette in Dade's company; and if he said little, his silences held no hint of antagonism. It was not until Dade rose to return to camp for the night that Jose put the question that had tickled the tongue of him ever since the arrival on his ranch of the Picardo vaqueros.
"Your friend, the Senor Allen—he is to join you later, perhaps?"
"Jack was left to look after the ranch." Dade's eyes were level in their glance, his voice quiet with the convincing ring of truth. "He won't be on rodeo at all."
Jose went paler than he had been two weeks before with his hurt, but a simple word of polite surprise held all his answer. For Jack to stay at home, to be near Teresita every day, to have nothing in the way of his love-making—nothing, since those doting two, her parents, would but smile at whatever she might choose to do—there was acid enough in that thought to eat away all the warmth, all the generosity Jose possessed. He let Dade go without even the perfunctory phrases of regret, which custom had made almost compulsory; and Manuel, sitting in silent wrath upon the porch, listened to the steady footfalls moving up and down the room behind him until the moon, that had been shining in his smoldering eyes, slipped over the red tiles of the roof and left all but the tree-tops in black shade.
"Dios! There will be one gringo the less when those two meet," he muttered, staring at the tiny glow of his cigarette; and afterward folded his arms tightly over a chest that heaved with the impatience within. When those two met, Manuel meant to be there also to see. "Me, I should like to drag him to death with the six-strand riata he despised!" was the beautiful thought he took to bed with him.
Sunshine was lifting the morning fog high above the tree-tops when the old, gray mare, whose every movement tinkled the bell hung around her neck, shook her rough coat vigorously to free it from the moisture which the fog had left; and so jangled a peremptory summons to the herd of saddle horses that bore the brand of Don Andres Picardo upon their right thighs. At the camp upon the bank of the Guadalupe, the embaladors were shouting curses, commands, jokes, and civilities to one another while they brought orderly packs out of the chaos of camp-equipment that littered the ground.
The vaqueros were saddling their mounts and fairly bubbling with a purely animal joy in the open; and Dade, his cigarette sending up a tiny ribbon of aromatic smoke as if he were burning incense before the altar of the soul of him that looked steadfastly out of his eyes, walked among them with that intangible air of good-fellowship which is so hard to describe, but which carries more weight among men than any degree of imperious superiority. Valencia looked up and flashed him a smile as he came near; and Pancho, the lean vaquero with the high beak and the tender heart, turned to see what Valencia was smiling at and gave instant glimpse of his own white teeth when he saw Dade behind him.
"To-day will be hot, Senor," he said. "Me, I wish we were already at Tres Pinos."
"No, you don't," grinned Dade, "for then you would not have the Sunal rancho before you, to build hopes upon, but behind you—and hope, they say, is sweeter than memory, Pancho."
Pancho, being ugly to look upon, liked to be rallied upon the one senorita in the valley whose eyes brightened at sight of him. He grinned gratifiedly and said no more.
A faint medley of sounds blended by distance turned heads towards the east; and presently, breasting the mustard field that lay level and yellow to the hills, came Jose's squad of vaqueros, with Jose himself leading the group at a pace that was recklessly headlong, his crimson sash floating like a pennant in the breeze he stirred to life as he charged down upon them.
"Only for the silver trimmings, you looked like a band of warlike Injuns coming down on us with the sun at your back," laughed Dade, as Jose swung down near him. "They're riders—the Indians back there on the plains; and when they pop over a ridge and come down on you like a tidal wave, your backbone squirms a little in spite of you. The way your vaqueros parted and galloped around our camp was a pretty good imitation of their preliminary flourishes."
"Still, I do not come in war," Jose returned, and looked full at the other. "I hope that we shall have peace, Senor Hunter; though one day I shall meet that friend of yours in war, if the saints permit. And may the day come soon."
"Whatever quarrel you may have with Jack, I hope it will not hinder us from working together without bad feeling between us." Dade threw away his cigarette and took a step nearer, so that the vaqueros could not hear.
"Don Jose, I know you don't like a gringo major domo to lead Don Andres' vaqueros on rodeo. I don't blame you Californians for being prejudiced against Americans, because you've been treated pretty shabbily by a certain class of them. But you're not so narrow you can't see that we're not all alike. I'd like to be friends, if you will, but I'm not going to apologize for being a gringo, nor for being here in charge of this camp. I didn't choose my nationality, and I didn't ask for my job. I'll give you a square deal, and I want you to know that if there's any grudge between us, it's all on your side."
Jose's fingers fumbled the little corn-husk wrapping for the cigarette he meant to make. "Senor, I repeat what I said to Manuel last night," he said, after a pause. "If all gringos were like you, we Californians would like the name better. But I thought you would stand by your friend—"
"And so I will, to the last—" Not being of a theatrical temperament, Dade balked at protestations of his loyalty. "Jack and I have worked and fought and played elbow to elbow for a long time, Don Jose. But I don't mix into his personal quarrels, unless I see him getting a crooked deal. I believe you'll fight fair. The rest lies between you two."
"But is it not your boast that the Senor Allen is the supreme caballero of California?" Jose was frank, at least, and Dade liked him the better for it. "For three years I have held the medalla oro [gold medal] for riding and for riata throwing; if it is true that you boast—"
Dade, as was the way of him when disgust or chagrin seized him, flung out both hands impatiently. "I did say he couldn't be beat. I said it to Manuel, when Manuel was sneering that Jack didn't know a good riata from a bad one. I won't take it back. I haven't seen your work in the saddle, Don Jose. I have seen Jack's, and I never saw any better. So, until I do, I can believe he's the best, can't I?"
"Si." Jose smiled without effort. "You are honest, Senor Hunter, and that pleases me well. I do not like you less because you are loyal to your friend; but that friend I hope one day to kill." He looked at the other questioningly. "Now I am honest also," his eyes said plainly.
"That's your affair and Jack's, as long as you don't try to get him when he isn't looking."
"I am not an assassin, Senor Hunter," Jose retorted stiffly.
"Then we understand each other, I guess. Let's get these fellows started. It's going to be hot, they say, and the horses are soft yet—at least, ours are. We took them off pasture yesterday, most of them."
"Mine are the same, Senor. But to-day's marcha will be an easy one. To Sunal Rancho is not far." He turned to remount and give the signal for starting. And with a little of the pride that had impelled Jack to show off his skill that day when the Captain of the Committee commanded him to mount the buckskin, Jose also vaulted into the saddle without deigning to touch the stirrup.
There was doubt in the senor's mind about his horsemanship being the best in all California? Very good. The senor would have the opportunity to judge for himself. Still, Jose had put to sleep most of his antagonism towards Dade, and his attitude of friendliness was not so deliberately forced as Manuel, watching eagerly for the first sign of a clash, believed it to be.
WHEN CAMP-FIRES BLINK
Down the valley they rode, gathering numbers to swell the cavalcade at each ranch they passed. La Laguna Seca, San Vincente, Las Uvas sent their quota of vaqueros, each headed by a majordomo and accompanied by embaladors with the camp equipment and supplies packed upon steady-going little mustangs. The bell-mares of the various herds jangled a chorus of pleasant discords with their little, iron bells. The scent of the mustard rose pungently under the trampling hoofs. At dusk, the camp-fires blinked at one another through the purpling shadows; and the vaqueros, stretched lazily upon their saddle blankets in the glow, stilled the night noises beneath the pleasant murmur of their voices while they talked. From the camp of the San Vincente riders rose a voice beautifully clear and sweet, above the subdued clamor.
Dade was listening to the song and dreaming a little while he listened, with his head lying cradled in his clasped hands and his face to the stars, when the group around the next camp-fire tittered and broke into an occasional laugh. Then a question was called to whoever might be within hearing:
"Who's the best vaquero in California?"
"Jack Allen, the gringo!" shouted a dozen voices, so that every camp must hear. Then came jeering laughter from every camp save one, the camp of the Picardo vaqueros.
Valencia's dark head lifted from the red and green blanket beyond the blaze; and Dade, watching, could see his profile sharply defined in the yellow light of the fire, as he stared toward the offending camp. The lips that smiled so often were drawn tight and thin; the nostrils flared like a frightened horse. While the laughs were still cackling derision, Valencia jumped up and ran; and Dade, even before he sat up to look, knew where he was going.
At the fire where the question was put, a young fellow, whose heavy, black mustache prudently hid lips coarse and sneering, came to his feet like a dummy of a man and glared dazedly at his companions, as if their faces should tell him whose hand it was that gripped the braided collar of his jacket. He was not long in doubt, however. The voice of Valencia grated vitriolic sentences in his ear, and the free hand of Valencia was lifted to deal him a blow fair upon the blank face of him. The circle of faces watched, motionless, above crouched bodies as quiet as the stars overhead.
A hand grasped Valencia's wrist while his arm was lifted to strike, so that the three men stood, taut-muscled and still, like a shadowy, sculptured group that pictured some mythological conflict.
"Let go, Valencia. This is nothing to fight over. Let go."
Valencia's angry eyes questioned the unreadable ones of his majordomo; but he did not let go, and so the three stood for a moment longer.
"But they insult the Senor Allen with their jeers," he protested. "Me, I fight always for my friends who are not present to fight for themselves. Would not the Senor Allen fight this fool who flouts him so?"
"No!" Dade's eyes flicked the circle of faces upon which the firelight danced. "If the Senor Allen were here, there would be no jeering."
"And for that will I fight them all!" Valencia twisted his arm a little, in the hope that Dade would let go his wrist. "Ah, Senor! Shall a man not be true to his friends?"
"Si, he shall be true, and he shall be sensible. Is the Senor Jack a weakling, that he cannot fight for himself?"
"But he is not here! If he were—" The tone of him gloated over the picture of what would happen in that case.
"There shall be no fighting." If Dade's voice was quiet, it did not carry the impression of weakness, or indecision. "Come to your own fire, Valencia. If it is necessary to fight for the Senor Allen—I am also his friend."
"You are right. There shall be no fighting." Dade started and glanced at Jose, standing beside him. "If the Senor Allen thinks himself the best, surely it is I, who hold the medalla that calls me el vaquero supremo, who have the right to question his boast; not you, amigos!"
"Who's the best vaquero, the bravest and the best in California?" queried a voice—the voice of the singer, who had come up with others to see what was going on here. And at his elbow another made answer boldly:
"Don Jose Pacheco!"
Jose smiled and lifted his shoulders deprecatingly at the tribute, while fifty voices shouted loyally his name. Dade, pressing his hand upon Valencia's shoulder, led him back into the dancing shadows that lay between the fires.
"Let it go," he urged. "Don Jose holds the medal, and he's entitled to the glory. We must keep peace, Valencia, or else I must leave the rodeo. Personal quarrels must wait."
"Si, Senor, personal quarrels must wait," assented Jose, again coming up unexpectedly behind them. "I but wish to say that I regret the bad manners of those caballeros, whose best excuse is that they are my friends. I hope the senor does not accuse me of spreading the news of the senor's boast. There are others, as the senor well knows, who heard it before even it came to my ears."
"It doesn't matter," Dade repeated. "They'll have their joke, and I don't blame them for putting the joke on a stranger, especially when he's a gringo—and absent."
"The senor is wise as he is loyal," stated Jose and bowed himself into the shadows. "Buenos noches, Senor."
"Good-night," answered Dade, speaking English to show he was not ashamed of it; and rolled himself in his blankets as a deliberate hint to Valencia that he did not want to discuss the incident, much to that one's disappointment.
It is to be feared that Valencia did not share in Dade's determination to keep the peace; for, before he slept, he promised himself that he would yet tell that pig-faced vaquero from Las Uvas what he thought of him. But outwardly the incident was closed, and closed permanently.
The sun was not risen above the mountains before they were hurriedly drinking their black coffee, and making ready to break camp; the flurry of emotions seemed to have died with the evening fire. If the men of the other camps were cool in their manner towards Dade when they met him, at least they were civil; except Manuel, who passed him by with lowered brows, and of him Dade took no notice. If he were watched curiously, in hope of detecting the awkwardness which would betray unfamiliarity with his work, Dade took no notice of that, either, except to grin now and then when he rode away. Altogether, he was well pleased with his reception and inclined to laugh at the forebodings he had felt; forebodings born of the knowledge that, unless these natives of California were minded to tolerate the presence of a gringo majordomo, it would be absolutely useless for him to attempt to work with them.
If he had only known it, his own men had done much towards lessening the prejudice of those who joined the main outfit. Valencia was not the only one of the Picardo vaqueros whose friendship might be counted upon. Like Manuel before he became jealous, they forgot that Dade was not of Spanish birth; for his eyes and his hair were dark as many of the native-born Californians, and his speech was as their own; he was good-humored, just in his judgments, reasonable in his demands. He could tell a good story well if he liked, or he could keep silent and listen with that sympathetic attention that never fails to flatter the teller of a tale. To a man they liked him, and they were not slow to show their liking after the manner of their kind.
By the time they reached Tres Pinos, which was the rendezvous of all the vaqueros from the Picardo ranch on the north to San Miguel on the south, Dade had quite lost the constraint that comes of feeling that one is disliked and only tolerated for the moment. He whistled while he rode along the creek bank looking for a comfortable camp site; and when Valencia loped up to him, as he was hesitating over a broad, shaded strip under a clump of willows, he turned and smiled upon his head vaquero.
"See, Senor, how well we Californians work together!" cried Valencia, pointing pridefully. "Here they come, the vaqueros from Agua Amargo, Durasno, Corral de Terre, Salinas—not yet have our embaladors thrown off the ropes from our packs, before they are here, these others whom we came to meet! Not one hour late, even! And the word was given weeks ago that we would meet this day."
From the mouth of the canyon trotted a band of saddle horses, kicking up a dust cloud that filmed the picture made by the gay caballeros who galloped behind. A gallant company were they; and when they met and mingled with those who came down from the north, it was as though a small army was giving itself a holiday in that vivid valley, with the Tres Pinos gurgling at the fun.
Having had experience in these matters, Dade was able to do his part and do it like a veteran, although he tactfully left to the other majordomos all those little details that would make of the various camps one orderly company. Two men he chose from his outfit and sent to the captain, as the Picardo contribution to the detail told off to herd the horses, but beyond that he confined himself chiefly to making himself as unobtrusive as was consistent with dignity.
Six men were sent out after beef; and although Dade had many times in Texas done exactly what they were doing, he watched interestedly these Californians at their work.
Cattle were everywhere except in the immediate vicinity of the camp. Half a mile or so the vaqueros galloped; then two of the leaders singled out a fat, young steer and made after him with their riatas hissing as the rawhide circled over their heads.
A loop dropped neatly over the wide horns, and a moment later the second settled upon the first. The first man turned and headed towards camp with the steer at his heels, ready at the slightest opportunity to make use of those long, sharp-pointed horns which nature had given him for just such need as this. The steer quite forgot the man behind, until he made a vicious lunge and was checked by the rope that had hung slack and unnoticed over his back. Furious, the steer turned and charged resentfully at the caballero who was following him and shouting taunts. But there again he was checked by the first.
So, charging this way and that; galloping wildly in pursuit of the man who seemed to be fleeing for his life, or wheeling to do battle with the rider who kept just so far in his rear, he was decoyed to the very outskirts of the camp.
If he had been qualified to weigh motives, the heart that brindle-roan steer would surely have burst at; the pure effrontery of the thing: not only must he yield his life and give his body for meat, that those yearning stomachs might be filled with his flesh; he must deliver that meat at the most convenient spot, as a butcher brings our chops to the kitchen door. For that purpose alone they were cunningly luring him closer and closer, that they need not carry the meat far when they had slaughtered him.
At least his last moments were lighted with hope. He made one grand, final dash, tripped in a noose that had somehow dropped neatly in the way of his front feet, and went down with a crash and a bellow of dismay. Some one ran lightly in—he did not see that it was the vaquero he had been pursuing all this time—and drove a dagger into the brain just back of the horns. Thus that particular gust of rage was wiped out of existence forever.
Later, when the camp-fires burned low, the pleasant odor of meat broiling upon the forked ends of long, willow branches over the red coals, proved how even a brindle steer may, at the last, in every savory morsel have justified his existence.
Life in those days was painted upon a big canvas, with broad sweep of brushes dipped in vivid colors. Although the branding of the season's calves was a matter of pure business, the manner in which that work was accomplished was a spectacle upon which we of the present generation would give much to look.
When the sun parted the fog and looked down inquisitively, the whole valley was pulsing with life, alight with color. The first real work of the rodeo was beginning, like the ensemble of some vast, spectacular play; and the stage was managed by Nature herself, creator of the harmony of colors. The dark, glossy green of live oak, the tender green of new willow leaves, the pale green of the mustard half buried in the paler yellow of its blossoms, had here and there a splash of orange and blue, where the poppies were refusing to give place to the lupines which April wished to leave for May, when she came smiling to dwell for one sweet month in the valley. The poppies had had their day. March had brought them, and then had gone away and left them for the April showers to pelt and play with; and now, when the redwoods on the mountainsides were singing that May was almost here, a whole slope of poppies lingered rebelliously to nod and peer and preen over the delights of the valley just below. The lupines were shaking their blue heads distressfully at the impertinence; and then here came the vaqueros galloping, and even the lupines and poppies forgot their dispute in the excitement of watching the fun.
As the roundups of our modern cattlemen "ride circle," so did those velvet-jacketed, silver-braided horsemen gallop forth in pairs from a common center that was the chosen rodeo ground. As if they were tracing the invisible spokes of a huge wheel laid flat and filling the valley from mountain range to mountain range, they rode out until they had reached the approximate rim of the circle. Then, turning, they rode more slowly back to the rodeo ground, driving before them the cattle they found there.
Not cattle only; here and there an antelope herd was caught in the circle and ran bewilderedly toward the common center; beautiful creatures with great eyes beseeching the human things to be kind, even while riatas were hissing over their trembling backs. Many a rider rode into camp with an antelope haunch tied to his gorgeous red and black saddle; and the wooden spits held delicious bits of antelope steak that night, broiling over the coals while the vaqueros sang old Spanish love-songs to lighten the time of waiting.
A gallant company, they. A care-free, laughter-loving, brave company, with every man a rider to make his womenfolk prate of his skill to all who would listen; with every man a lover of love and of life and the primitive joys of life. They worked, that company, and they made of their work a game that every man of them loved to play. And Dade, loving the things they loved and living the life they lived, speedily forgot that there was still an undercurrent of antagonism beneath that surface of work and play and jokes and songs and impromptu riding and roping contests (from which Jose Pacheco was laughingly barred because of his skill and in which Dade himself was, somehow, never invited to join). He forgot that the antagonism was there—except when he came face to face with Manuel, perhaps, or when he chanced to see on the face of Jose a brooding look of dissatisfaction, and guessed that he was thinking of Jack and Teresita.
"FOR WEAPONS I CHOOSE RIATAS"
There must have been a good deal of gossip amongst the vaqueros of the various ranches, as they rode on circle or lay upon their saddle blankets around the evening camp-fires. As is ever the case when a man is young, handsome, rich, and holds proudly the gold medal which proclaims him the champion of the whole State—the golden disk which many a young vaquero longed to wrest from him in a fair test of skill—there were those who would rather like to see Jose humbled. True, they would never choose an alien to do the humbling, and the possibility was discussed with various head-shakings amongst themselves.
But there were the Picardo vaqueros stanchly swearing by all the saints they knew that these two gringos were not as other gringos; that these two were worthy a place amongst true Californians. Could they not see that this Senor Hunter was as themselves? And he was not more Spanish in his speech and his ways than was the Senor Allen, albeit the Senor Allen's eyes were blue as the lupines, and his hair the color of the madrona bark when it grows dark with age—or nearly the color. And he could shoot, that blue-eyed one!
Valencia, having an audience of a dozen or more one night, grew eloquent upon the prowess of the blue-eyed one. And the audience, listening, vowed that they would like to see him matched against Jose, who thought himself supreme in everything.
"Not in fighting," amended Valencia, his teeth gleaming white in the fire-glow, as he leaned to pull a brand from the blaze that he might relight the cigarette which had gone out while he told the tale of that running fight, when the two Americanos had shamed a whole crowd of gringos—for so did Valencia make nice distinction of names.
"Not in fighting, amigos, nor yet in love! And because he knows that it is so, the cheeks of Don Jose hang slack, and he rides with chin upon his breast, when he thinks no one is looking. The medalla oro is his, yes. But he would gladly give it for that which the Senor Allen possesses. Me, I think that the Senor Allen could as easily win also the medalla oro as he has won the other prize." There was a certain fineness in Valencia that would never permit his tongue to fling the name of the Senorita Teresa amongst these vaqueros; but he was sure that they caught his meaning.
"Dios! me, I should like to see him try," cried a tall San Vincente rider, shifting his position to ease a cramp in his long leg; and his tone was neither contemptuous nor even doubtful, but merely eager for the excitement there would be in the spectacle.
Some one in the shadows turned and walked quickly away to another fire-glow with its ring of Rembrandt figures and faces, and none save Valencia knew that it was Manuel gone to tell his master what had been said. Valencia smiled while he smoked.
Presently Jose was listening unwillingly to Manuel's spite-tinged version of the talk at the San Vincente camp. "The vaqueros are making a mock of thy bravery and thy skill!" Manuel declared, with more passion than truth. "They would see thee beaten, in fight as well as in love—"
The stiffening of Jose's whole figure stopped Manuel short but not dissatisfied, for he saw there was no need that he should speak a single word more upon the subject.
"They shall see him try, unless he is a coward." The voice of Jose was muffled by the rage that filled him.
So it came to pass that Manuel saddled his best mustang within an hour and rode away to the north. And when Valencia strolled artlessly to the Pacheco fire and asked for him, Jose hesitated perceptibly before he replied that Manuel had gone home with a message to the foreman there.
Valencia grinned his widest when he heard that, and over two cigarettes he pondered the matter. Being a shrewd young man with an instinct for nosing out mysteries, he flung all uncertainty away with the stub of his second cigarette and sought Dade.
He found him standing alone beside a deep, still pool, staring at the shadows and the moon-painted picture in the middle, and looking as if his thoughts were gone on far journeys. Valencia was too full of his news to heed the air of absolute detachment that surrounded Dade. He went straight to the heart of his subject and as a precaution against eavesdropping he put his meaning into the best English he knew.
"Jose, she's dam-mad on Senor Jack," he began eagerly. "She's hear talk lak she's no good vaquero. Me, I hear San Vincente vaqueros talk, and Manuel she's hear also and run queeck for tella Jose. Jose she's lak for keela Senor Jack. Manuel, she's ride lak hell for say Jose, she lak for fight Senor Jack. Me, I theenk Senor Jack keela Jose pretty dam-queeck!"
Dade had come to know Valencia very well; he turned now and eyed him with some suspicion.
"Are you sure?" he asked, in the tone that demanded a truthful answer. He had seen Manuel ride away in the white light of the moon, and he had wondered a little and then had forgotten all about it in the spell of utter loneliness which the moon brings to those who are cheated by Fate from holding what they most desire.
"Sure, me." Valencia's tone was convincingly positive. "Manuel, she's go lak hell for tella Senor Jack, Jose, she's lak for fight duelo. Sure. That's right."
Dade swung back and stared moodily at the moon-painted pool where the trout, deceived by the brightness into thinking it was day, started widening ripple-rings here and there, where they flicked the surface with slaty noses; and the wavering rings were gold-tipped until they slid into the shadows and were lost. Dade watched three rings start in the center and ripple the whole pool.
"How quick could you get to the rancho?" he asked abruptly, just as Valencia's spirits were growing heavy with disappointment. "Could you overtake Manuel, do you think?"
"Me, I could with the caballo which I have in mind—Noches—I could pass Manuel upon the way, though he had two more hours the start of me!" English was too slow now for Valencia's eagerness. "Manuel is fat, and he is not young, and he will not ride too fast for his fat to endure. Also he will stop at the Pacheco hacienda for breakfast, and to rest his bones. Me, I can be at the rancho two hours before Manuel, Senor."
Valencia was not a deceitful young man, as deceit goes; but he wanted very much to be sent in haste to the ranch, for he was itching with curiosity to know the truth of this matter and if he were indeed right. If Manuel had gone bearing a challenge from Jose to the Senor Jack, then he wanted to know the answer as soon as possible. Also there was Felice, the daughter of Carlos, whose lips lured him with their sweetness. Truly, Valencia would promise any miracle of speed.
The pool lay calm as the face of a dead child. Dade stooped and tossed a pebble into it as if that stillness troubled him. He took his cigarette from his lips, looked at the glowing tip, and over it at the eager face of Valencia.
"We mustn't let them fight. Take Noches and ride like the devil was at your heels. Get there ahead of Manuel and tell Jack—" He stopped there and bit his lips to hurry his slow thoughts. "Tell Jack he must go to town right away, because—well, tell him Bill Wilson—"
Valencia's face had been lengthening comically, but hope began to live again in his eyes. "If the senor would write what he wishes to say while I am making ready for the start, he will then have more time to think of what is best. The moon will ride clear to-night; and the sun will find me at the rancho, Senor. Me, I have ridden Noches one hundred miles without rest, before now; these sixty will be play for us both."
"Gracias, Valencia." Dade dropped a hand gratefully upon the shoulder of the other. "I'll write a note, but you must do your part also. You know your people, and I know Jack; if those two fight, the trouble will spread like fire in the grass; for Don Jose has many friends to take up the quarrel. You've had a long day in the saddle, amigo, and the sixty miles will not be play. I would not ask it if the need were less urgent—but you must beat Manuel. If you don't, Jack will accept the challenge; and once he does that—" he flung out both hands in his characteristic gesture of impatience or helplessness.
"Si, Senor. If the saints permit, Manuel shall not see him first." It was like Valencia to shift the responsibility from his own conscience to the shoulders of the saints, for now he could ride with a lighter heart. Perhaps he was even sincere when he made the promise; but there were sixty miles of moonlight in which his desire could ride with him and tempt him; and of a truth, Valencia did greatly desire to see those two come together in combat!
The saints were kind to Valencia, but they were also grimly just. Because he so greatly desired an excuse for delay, they tricked Noches with a broken willow branch that in the deceptive moonlight appeared to be but the shadow of the branch above it. It caught him just under an outflung knee as he galloped and flipped him neatly, heels to the stars. He did not struggle to his feet even when Valencia himself, a bit dazed by the fall, pulled upon the reins and called to him to rise. The horse lay inert, a steaming, black mass in the road. The moon was sliding down behind the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the chill breeze whispered that dawn was coming fast upon the trail of the moonbeams.
Valencia, when he saw that Noches would never gallop again, because he had managed to break his sweat-lathered neck in the fall, sat down beside the trail and rolled a corn-husk cigarette. His mood swung from regret over the passing of as fleet and true a horse as ever he bestrode, to gratitude to the saints for their timely hindrance of his prompt delivery of the note. Truly it was now no fault of his that he could never reach the hacienda before Manuel! He would have to walk and carry his saddle, heavy with silver and wide skirts of stamped leather; and he was a long way from the end of his journey, when he must cover the distance with his own feet. Eight or ten miles, he estimated it roughly; for he had passed Jose's hacienda some time before, and had resisted the temptation to turn aside and find out if Manuel were there or had gone on. He had not passed Manuel in the trail as he had boasted that he would do, and not once had he glimpsed him anywhere, though there had been places where the road lay straight, and he could see it clear in the moonlight for a mile or more.