When he had finished the cigarette and his thanks to Fate—or whatever power had delayed him—he removed his saddle and bridle from the horse and went on; and it was then that he began to understand that he must do a penance for desiring war rather than peace amongst his fellows. Valencia, after the first hour of tramping with his saddle on his shoulders, had lost a good deal of his enthusiasm for the duel he felt sure was already a certainty.
When he left the road for a straight cut to the hacienda, the wild range cattle hindered him with their curiosity, so that, using all the methods known to a seasoned vaquero for driving them back, his progress had been slow. But he finally came out into the road again and was plodding along the stone wall within half a mile of the house, his face very disconsolate because of his protesting feet and the emptiness in his stomach, when Manuel himself confronted him suddenly coming from the house.
Manuel was looking well pleased with himself, in spite of his night ride. He pulled up and stared wide-eyed at Valencia, who had no smile with which to greet him but swore instead a pensive oath.
"Dios! Is it for a wager that you travel thus?" grinned Manuel, abominably comfortable upon a great, sorrel horse that pranced all round Valencia in its anxiety to be upon its way home. "Look you, Valencia! Since you are travelling, you had best go and tell the padres to make ready the sacrament for your gringo friend, that blue-eyed one; for truly his time on earth is short!"
Valencia, at that, looked up into Manuel's face and smiled in spite of the pain in his feet and the emptiness in his stomach.
"Does it please you, then, Valencia? All night I rode to bear a message to that blue-eyed one who thinks himself supremo in all things; a challenge from Don Jose, to fight a duelo if he is not a coward; so did Jose write. 'Unless you are afraid to meet me'—and the vanity of that blue-eyed one is great, Valencia. Of a truth, the man is loco. What think you, Valencia? He had the right to choose the weapons—and Jose believed that he would choose those pistols of which you make so much talk. Madre de Dios! What says the blue-eyed one, then?—and laughed in my face while he spoke the words! 'Go tell Don Jose I will fight him whenever and wherever he likes; and for weapons I choose riatas.' Heard you anything—"
"Riatas!" Valencia's jaw dropped an inch before he remembered that Manuel's eyes were sharp and eager to read the thoughts of a man in the twitching muscles of his face.
"Si, riatas!" Manuel's whole fat body shook with laughter. "Even you, who are wholly bewitched by those gringos, even you are dismayed! Tell me, Valencia, have you seen him lasso anything?"
But Valencia, having pulled himself together, merely lifted his shoulders and smiled wisely, so that even Manuel was almost deceived into believing that Valencia's faith was great because it was built upon a secret knowledge of what the blue-eyed one could do.
"Me, I heard you boasting to those San Vincente vaqueros," Manuel accused, shifting the talk to generalities. "And the Senor Hunter boasts also that the blue-eyed one is supremo with the riata, as he is with everything else!" The tone of Manuel was exceeding bitter. "Well, he will have the chance to prove what he can do. No gringo can come among us Californians and flap the wings and crow upon the tule thatch for naught. There has been overmuch crowing, Valencia. Me, I am glad that boaster must do something more than crow upon the thatch, Valencia!"
"Si, there has been overmuch crowing," Valencia retorted, giving to his smile the lift that made it a sneer, "but the thatch has not been of Picardo tules. Me, I think they grew within hearing of the mission bells of Santa Clara! And the gallo [rooster] which crows is old and fat, and feeds too much upon the grapes that are sour! Adios! I must haste to give congratulations to the Senor Jack, that he will have opportunity to wring the necks of those loud-crowing gallos of the Pacheco thatches."
Whereupon he picked up his saddle and walked on, very straight in the back and patently unashamed of the injustice of his charge; for it was the crowing of Valencia himself beside the San Vincente camp-fire that had brought Manuel with the message, and Valencia knew that perfectly well.
The family of Don Andres had been breakfasting upon the wide veranda when Manuel strode grimly across the patio and confronted them. They were still seated there when Valencia, having deposited his riding gear at the saddle-hut, limped to the steps and stood with his sunny smile upon his face and his sombrero brim trailing the dust. It seemed to Valencia that the don was displeased; he read it in the set of his head, in the hardness that was in his glance, in a certain inflexible quality of his voice.
"Ah, Valencia," he said, rising as if the interruption was to put an end to his lingering there, "you also seem to have ridden in haste from the rodeo. Truly, I think that same rodeo has been but the breeding-ground of gossip and ill-feeling, and is like to bear bitter fruit. Well, you have a message, I'll warrant. What is it?"
Valencia's mien was respectful almost to the point of humility. "The majordomo sent me with a letter, which I was to deliver into the hands of the Senor Allen," he said simply. "My hope was that I might arrive before Manuel"—he caught a flicker of wrath in the eyes of the don at the name and smiled inwardly—"but the moonlight played tricks upon the trail, and my caballo tripped upon a willow-branch and fell upon his head so that his neck was twisted. I was forced to walk and carry the saddle, and there were times when the cattle interrupted with their foolish curiosity, and I must stop and set the riata hissing to frighten them back, else they would perchance have trampled me. So I fear that I arrive too late, Don Andres. But truly I did my best; a full hour behind Manuel I started, and have walked ten miles of the sixty. The saints know well—"
Don Andres checked his apologies with a wave of the hand, and sat down somewhat heavily in his favorite chair, as if he were tired, though the day was but fairly begun.
"We do not doubt your zeal," he observed dryly. "Give the letter to the senor and begone to your breakfast. And," he added impressively, "wait you and rest well until the answer is ready; for perchance there will be further need to test the kindness of the saints—and the speed of a horse."
Valencia fumbled within his sash and brought forth the small, folded square of paper, went up two steps and placed it in Jack's upturned palm, gave Jack also a glance more kindly and loyal than ever he had received from that minx, Teresita, and went away to the vaqueros' quarters. Valencia had learned nothing from the meeting, except that the don was in one of his rare fits of ill-temper.
"Yet I know that there will be a duelo," he comforted himself with thinking, as he limped wearily across the patio. "The face of the patron is black because of it, and a little devil-flame burns in the eyes of the senorita because for love of her men would fight—(Such is the way of women, to joy in those things which should give them, fear!)—and the senora's face is sagged with worry, and Senor Jack—ah, there is the fighting look in those eyes! Never have I seen them so dark: like the bay when a storm is riding upon the wind. And it will be riatas—for so Manuel told me. Me, I will wager my saddle upon the Senor Jack, even though riatas be the weapons. For he is wily, that blue-eyed one; never would he choose the rawhide unless he knew its hiss as he knows his own heartbeats. Let it be riatas, then, if so the senor chooses!"
A FIESTA WE SHALL HAVE
Jack, unfolding the crumpled paper, read twice the note from Dade, and at each reading gave a little snort. He folded the paper, unfolded it and read again:
"If Jose wants to fight, take a fool's advice and don't. Better quit the ranch and go back to town for a while—Valencia will get there ahead of Manuel, he says, and you can pull out before Manuel shows up. A licking might do Jose good, but it would stir up a lot of trouble and raise hell all around, so crawl into any hole you come to. I'll quit as soon as rodeo is over, and meet you in town. Now don't be bull-headed. Let your own feelings go into the discard for once, and do what's best for the whole valley. Everything's going smooth here. Noah's dove ain't got any the best of me and Jose, and the boys are working fine.
"At least your majordomo agrees with you, Don Andres," he said, twisting the note unthinkingly in his fingers. "Dade wants me to sneak off to town and hide in Bill Wilson's cellar." There was more resentment in his tone than the note itself had put there; for the argument which Valencia had unwittingly interrupted had been threatening to become acrimonious.
"My majordomo," replied Don Andres, his habitual courtesy just saving the words from becoming a retort, "continues to show that rare good sense which first attracted me to him."
The senora moved uneasily in her chair and smiled deprecatingly at Jack, then imploringly at her husband. This was washing day, and those shiftless ones within would overlook half the linen unless she was on the spot to watch and direct. But these two had come to their first clash of wills, and her husband had little liking for such firm defiance of his wishes. Well she knew the little weather-signs in his face. When his eyebrows took just that tilt, and when the nostrils were drawn in and quivered with his breathing, then was it wise that she should remain by his side. The senora knew well that words are never so harsh between the male of our species when their women are beside them. So, suffering mental torment because of the careless peonas, she, nevertheless, sent Teresita after the fine, linen apron from which she meant to remove a whole two inches of woof for the new pattern of drawnwork which the Donna Lucia had sent her. She would remain as a buffer between these two whose eyes were too hard when they looked at each other.
"It seems a pity that young men nowadays cannot contain themselves without quarreling," sighed the senora, acting upon the theory that anger is most dangerous when it is silent, and so giving the conversational ball a push.
"Is there no way, Senor, in which you might avert this trouble? Truly it saddens me to think of it, for Jose has been as my own son. His mother and I were as twin sisters, Senor, and his mother prayed me to watch over him when she had gone. 'Si, madre mia' would he tell me, when I gave him the good counsel. And now he comes no more, and he wants to fight the duelo! Is there no way, Senor?"
The hardness left Jack's lips but not his eyes, while he looked from her to the don, smoking imperturbably his cigar beside her.
"There is no way, Senora, except for a coward. I have done what I could; I know that Jose's skill is great with riatas, and the choice was mine. I might have said pistols," he reminded her gently, but with meaning.
The plump hands of the senora went betrayingly into the air and her earrings tinkled with the horror that shook her cushiony person. "Not pistols! No, no—for then Jose would surely be killed! Gracias, Senor! With riatas my Jose can surely give good account of himself. Three times has he won the medalla oro in fair contest. He is a wizard with the rawhide. Myself, I have wept with pride to see him throw it at the fiestas—"
"Mother mine, Margarita would have you come at once," the senorita interrupted her. "Little Francisco has burned his legs with hot water, and Margarita thinks that your poultice—"
With twittering exclamations of dismay over the, accident the two women hurried away to minister to the burned legs of Francisco, and Jack rose and flung away his cigarette. His mouth had again the stubborn look which Dade knew so well, and dreaded also.
"I am sorry for this unpleasantness," he said perfunctorily, stopping before Don Andres. "But as I told the senora, I have done all that I can do. I have named riatas. I don't think even you, Don Andres, could ask more of me. Surely you wouldn't want to know that your roof had sheltered a coward?"
Don Andres waved away the challenge which the question carried. "Still, it seems a pity that my family must be made the subject of gossip because of the foolishness of two young men," he said doggedly, returning to his argument. "They will say that it is because of my daughter that you fight; and the friendship of years must be set aside while two hot-heads vent their silly spite—"
"It need not." Jack's head went up an inch. "I can leave your employ, Don Andres, at any moment. There is no need for you to be caught between the duties of hospitality and those of friendship. I can do anything—I am willing to do anything—except crawl into a hole, as Dade wrote for me to do." A fine, spirited picture he made, standing there with the flames of wrath in his eyes and with neck stiff and his jaws set hard together.
Don Andres looked up at him with secret approval. He did not love a coward, and truly, this young fellow was brave. And Jose had deliberately sought the quarrel from the first; justice compelled him to remember that.
"If it might be arranged—" The don was studying the situation and the man together. "Almost have I grasped the thread that will unravel the whole. No, no! I do not mean your going, Senor. That would but limber the tongue of scandal; and besides, I do not mean that I withdraw my friendship from you. A man must be narrow, indeed, if he cannot carry more than one friendship in his soul.
"Sit you down, Senor, while I think a moment," he urged. "Surely it can be arranged without hurt to the fair name of—of any. Riatas—ah, now I have it, Senor! Dullard, not to have thought of it at once! Truly must I be in my dotage!" He did not mean that, of course, and he was quite openly pleased when Jack smiled and shook his head.
"Listen, Senor, and tell me if the plan is not a good one! To-morrow Valencia shall ride back to the rodeo, with a message to all from me, Don Andres Picardo. I shall proclaim a fiesta, Senor—such a fiesta as even Monterey never rivaled in the good old days when we were subject to his Majesty, the King. A fiesta we shall have, as soon as may be after the rodeo is over. There will be sports such as you Americanos know nothing of, Senor. And there openly, before all the people, you shall contest with Jose for a prize which I shall give, and for the medalla oro if you will; for you shall have the privilege of challenging Jose, the champion, to contest for the medalla. And there will be a prize—and I doubt not—" He was thinking that there would probably be two prizes, though only one which he could proclaim publicly.
"Myself, I shall write to Jose and beg him to consider the honor of his father's name and of the name of his father's friend, and consent that the duelo shall take place under the guise of sport. It must not be to the death, Senor. Myself, I shall insist that it shall not be to the death. Before all the people, and women, and ninos—and besides, I do not wish that Jose should—" There again he checked himself, and Jack's lips twitched at the meaning he read into the break.
"But if there should be an accident?" Jack's eyes probed for the soul of the old man; the real soul of the Spanish grandee under the broad-minded, easy-natured, Californian gentleman. He probed, and he thought he found what he was seeking; he thought it showed for just an instant in his eyes and in the upward lift of his white mustache.
"An accident would be deplorable, Senor," he said. "We will hope that there will be no accident. Still, Jose is a very devil when the riata is hissing over his head, and he rides recklessly. Senor, permit me to warn you that Jose is a demon in the saddle. Not for nothing does he hold the medalla oro."
"Gracias, Don Andres. I shall remember," said Jack, and walked away to the stables.
He felt that the heart of Don Andres Picardo was warring with his intelligence. That although his wide outlook and his tolerance would make friends of the gringos and of the new government—and quite sincerely—still, the heart of him was true Spanish; and the fortunes of his own blood-kin would send it beating fast or slow in sympathy, while his brain weighed nicely the ethics of the struggle. Jack was not much given to analyzing the inner workings of a man's mind and heart, but he carried with him a conviction that it was so.
He hunted up Diego, and found him putting a deal of gratuitous labor upon the silver trimmings of the new saddle. Diego being the peon in whose behalf Jack had last winter interfered with Perkins, his gratitude took the form of secret polishings upon the splendid riding-gear, the cleaning of Jack's boots and such voluntary services. Now the silver crescents which Teresita ridiculed were winking up at him to show they could grow no brighter, and he was attacking vigorously the "milky way" that rode behind the high cantle. Diego grinned bashfully when Jack's shadow flung itself across the saddle and so announced his coming, and stood up and waited humbly before the white senor who had fought for him, a mere peon, born to kicks and cursings rather than to kindness, and so had won the very soul of him.
"Bueno," praised Jack patronizingly. "Now I have some real work for you, Diego, and it must be done quickly and well."
"Gracias, Senor," murmured Diego, abashed by such favor, and bowed low before his god.
"The riata must be dressed now, Diego, and dressed until it is soft as a silken cord, sinuous as the green snakes that live in the streams, and not one strand must be frayed and weakened. Sabe? Too long have I neglected to have it done, and now it must be done in haste—and done well. Can you dress it so that it will be the most perfect riata in California, Diego?" A twinkle was in Jack's eyes, but Diego was too dazzled by the graciousness of his god to see it there. He made obeisance more humble than before.
"Si, Senor," he promised breathlessly. "Never has riata been dressed as this riata shall be. By the Holy Mother I swear it."
"Bueno. For listen! Much may hang upon the strength and the softness of it." He fixed his eyes sternly upon the abject one. "It may mean my life or my death, Diego. For in a contest with Don Jose Pacheco will I use it."
"Si, Senor," gasped Diego, awed into trembling. "By my soul I swear—"
"You needn't. Save some of your energy for the rawhide. You'll want all you've got before you're through." Jack, having made an impression deep enough to satisfy the most exacting of masters, dropped to his natural tone and speech. "Get some one to help, and come with me to the orchard."
From the saddle-house he brought the six-strand, rawhide riata which Manuel had bought for him and which his carelessness had left still stiff and unwieldy, and walked slowly into the orchard, examining critically each braided strand as he went. Manuel, he decided, was right; the riata was perfect.
Diego, trailing two horsehair ropes and carrying a stout, smooth stick of oak that had evidently been used before for the work, came running after Jack as if he were going to put out a fire. Behind him trotted a big, muscular peon who saw not half the reason for haste that blazoned itself across the soul of Diego.
Thus the three reached the orchard, where Jack selected two pear trees that happened to stand a few feet more than the riata length apart; and Diego, slipping a hair rope through the hondo of the riata, made fast the rope to a pear tree. The other end he tied to the second hair rope, drew the riata taut and tied the rope securely to the second tree. He picked up the oaken stick, examined it critically for the last time, although he knew well that it was polished smooth as glass from its work on other riatas, twisted the riata once around it and signed to the other peon.
Each grasping an end of the stick and throwing all their weight against it, they pushed it before them along the stretched riata. As they strained toward the distant pear tree the rawhide smoked with the friction of the stick in the twist. It was killing work, that first trip from tree to tree, but Diego joyed in thus serving his blue-eyed god. As for the other, Roberto, he strained stolidly along the line, using the strength that belonged to his master the patron just as matter-of-factly as he had used it since he was old enough to be called a man.
Jack, leaning against a convenient tree in the next row, smoked a cigarette and watched their slow, toilsome progress. Killing work it was, but the next trip would be easier after that rendering of the stiff tissue. When the stick touched the hondo, the two stopped and panted for a minute; then Diego grasped his end of the stick and signaled the return trip. Again it took practically every ounce of strength they had in their muscular bodies, but they could move steadily now, instead of in straining, spasmodic jerks. The rawhide sizzled where it curled around the stick. They reached the end and stopped, and Jack commanded them to sit down and have a smoke before they did more.
"It is nothing, Senor. We can continue, since the senor has need of haste," panted Diego, brushing from his eyes the sweat that dripped from his eyebrows.
"Not such haste that you need to kill yourselves at it," grinned Jack, and went to examine the riata. Those two trips had accomplished much towards making it a pliable, live thing in the hands of one skilled to direct its snaky dartings here and there, wherever one willed it to go. Many trips it would require before the riata was perfect, and then—
"The senor is early at his prayers," observed a soft, mocking voice behind him.
Jack dropped the riata and turned, his whole face smiling a welcome. But Teresita was in one of her perverse moods and the mockery was not all in her voice; her eyes were maddeningly full of it as she looked from him to the stretched riata.
"The senor is wise to tell the twists in his riata as I tell my beads—a prayer for each," she cooed. "For truly he will need the prayers, and a riata that will perform miracles of its own accord, if he would fight Jose with rawhide." There was the little twist of her lips afterward which Jack had come to know well and to recognize as a bull recognizes the red serape of the matador.
"Senor," she added impressively, holding back her hair from blowing across her face and gazing at him wide-eyed, with a wicked assumption of guileless innocence, "at the Mission San Jose there is a very old and very wise woman. She lives in a tule hut behind the very walls of the Mission, and the Indians go to her by night when dreams have warned them that death threatens. She is a terribly wise old woman, Senor, for she can look into the past and part the curtain which hides the future. For gold will she part it. And for gold will she put the curse or the blessing where curse or blessing is needed most. Go you to the old woman and have her put a blessing upon the riata when it is dressed and you have prayed your prayers upon it, Senor! For five pesos will she bless it and command it to fly straight wherever the senor desires that it shall fly. Then can you meet Jose and not tremble so that the spur-bells tinkle."
Jack went hot inside of him, but he made his lips smile at the jest; for so do brave men try to make light of torment, whether it be fire or flood or the tongue of the woman they love.
"All right," he said. "And I think I'll have the judges rule that the fight shall be at fifty paces, as I would if we were to fight with pistols." He tried to keep his irritation out of his voice, but there must have been enough to betray him.
For Teresita smiled pleasedly and sent another barb. "It would be wise. For truly, Jose's equal has never been seen, and caballeros I have known who would swear that Jose's riata can stretch to fifty paces and more to find its mark."
"Is it anxiety for me that makes you so solicitous?" demanded Jack, speaking low so that the peons could not overhear.
"Perhaps—and perhaps it is pride; for I know well the skill and the bravery of my Jose." Again the twist of her pretty, pouting lips, blood-red and tempting.
Her Jose! For just a minute the face of Teresita showed vague to him before his wrathful eyes.
"When you tell your beads again, Senorita," he advised her crisply, "say a prayer or two for your Jose also. For I promise you now that I will shame him before your face, and if he lives afterward to seek your sympathy, it will be by grace of my mercy!"
"Santa Maria, what a fierce senor!" Her laughter mocked him. "Till the fiesta I shall pray—for you!" Then she turned and ran, looking over her shoulder now and again to laugh at him.
Always before, when she had teased and flouted and fled laughing, Jack had pursued her with long strides, and in the first sequestered nook had made her lips pay a penalty. But this time he stood still and let her go—which must have puzzled the senorita very much, and perhaps piqued her pride as well. For the girl who flouts and then flees laughing surely invites pursuit and an inexorable exaction of the penalty. And if she is left to flee in safety, then must the flouted one pay for his stupidity, and pay high in the coin of love.
WHAT IS LOVE WORTH?
Valencia swung down from his belathered horse as lightly as though he had not spent seven hours in the saddle and during those seven hours had covered more miles than he would have years to live. His smile was wide and went as deep as his emotions had thus far plumbed his nature, and his voice had the exultant note of a child who has wonderful news to tell. He gave Dade a letter, and his very gesture was triumphant; and the eyes were eager that watched his majordomo read. He bubbled with words that he would like to say, but he waited.
"So you didn't get there in time, after all," Dade observed, looking up from Jack's characteristic signature, in which the tail of the "k" curled around the whole like a mouse lying asleep. "Manuel came back this morning, and the whole camp is talking nothing but duelo. I thought you said—"
"Senor, the saints would not permit that I should arrive first," Valencia explained virtuously. "A stick tripped Noches and he fell, and broke his neck in the fall. The senor knows well the saints had a hand in that, for hundreds of horses fall every day thus without hurt. Never before in my life have I seen a horse die thus, Senor! I was compelled to walk and carry the saddle, yet such haste I made that Manuel met me by the stone wall as he was leaving. And at least twelve miles I walked—"
"Oh, all right," Dade waved away further apology. "I reckon you did your best; it can't be helped now. They're going to fight with riatas, Manuel says. Is that right?"
"But not the duelo, Senor—no, but in the contest. For sport, that all may witness, and choose who is champion, after the bull-fighting, and the—"
"What are you talking about, man?" Dade's hand fell heavily upon the shoulder of Valencia, swaying his whole body with the impact. "Are you loco, to talk of bull-fightings?"
"It is the fiesta, Senor! The patron himself has proclaimed the grand fiesta, such as they have in Monterey, only this will be greater; and then those two will fight their duelo with riatas, yes; but not to the death, Senor. The patron himself has declared it. For the medalla oro and also for a prize will they fight; and the prize—what think you, Senor?"
Valencia, a-quiver with eagerness, laid a slim hand upon the braided front of Dade's close-fitting buckskin jacket.
"The prize will be Solano! That beautiful caballo—beautiful even as thy Surry—which the patron has not permitted rawhide to touch, except for the branding. Like the sunshine he is, with his hair of gold; and the tail that waves to his heels is like the ripples on the bay at sunrise. Who wins the duelo shall have Solano for his own, and shall ride him before all the people; for such is the patron's word. From his own lips I heard it! Me, I think that will be the greatest sport of all, for he is wild as the deer on the mountain slopes—that yellow caballo, and strong as the bull which the patron will choose to fight the grizzly he will bring from the mountains.
"Listen, Senor! The mother of Solano was a she-devil under the saddle, and killed two men by throwing herself upon them; and the sire was Satanas, of whom stories are told around the camp-fires as far south as San Luis Obispo.
"Ah, he is wise, the patron! 'Then let them also prove their courage in other ways. Let the victor pray to the saints and ride Solano, who is five years old and has never felt the riata since he left his mother's side—who was a devil.' Me, I heard the soul of the patron speak thus, while the lips of the patron said to me:
"'Go back to the rodeo, Valencia, and proclaim to all that I will give the grand fiesta with sports to please all. Tell them that already two have agreed to contest with riatas for a prize—' Look you, Senor, how wily is the patron!—'And for the prize I name the gelding, Solano, who has never known weight of saddle. Tell them, Valencia, that the victor shall ride his prize for all the crowd to see. And if he is thrown, then Solano will be forfeit to the other, who must ride him also. There will be other sports and other prizes, Valencia, and others may contest in riding, in the lassoing and tying of wild steers, in running. But say that Don Jose Pacheco and the Senor Jack Allen will contest with riatas for the possession of Solano.' Ah, Senor—"
"Ah, Valencia, why not scatter some of your enthusiasm over the other camp-fires?" Dade broke in quizzically. "Go and proclaim it, then. Tell the San Vincente men, and the Las Uvas, and all the other vaqueros."
Valencia, grinned and departed, leaving behind him in the loose sand tracks more than three feet apart to show how eager was his obedience; and Dade sat down upon a dead log that had been dragged to the Picardo camp-fire, to consider how this new phase of the affair would affect the temper of the people who owned such warm hearts and such hot heads.
A fiesta, with the duelo fought openly under the guise of a contest for the medal and a prize which was well worth any man's best efforts—surely, Don Andres was wily, as Valencia said. But with all the people of the valley there to see, their partisanship inflamed by the wine of festivity and the excitement of the sports themselves—what then?
Dade thoughtfully rolled a corn-husk cigarette, and tried to peer into the future. As it looked to him, he and Jack were rather between the devil and the deep sea. If Jack were beaten, they would be scorned and crowed over and humiliated beyond endurance. Neither was made of the stuff to stand much of that, and they would probably wind up with both hands and their hats full of trouble. And to himself he admitted that there was a fair chance of that very result. He had not been blind, and Jose had not shrunk into the background when there was riata-work and riding to be done on the rodeo ground. Dade had watched him as jealously as it was in his nature to do, and the eyes of jealousy are keen indeed; and he had seen Jose make many throws, and never a miss. Which, if you know anything of rope-work, was a remarkable record for any man. So there was a good chance of Jose winning that fight. In his heart Dade knew it, even if his lips never would admit it.
Well, supposing Jose was beaten; suppose Jack won! What then? Dade blew a mouthful of smoke towards the camp-fire, deserted except for himself, while his vaqueros disported themselves with their neighbors, and shook his head. He had a little imagination; perhaps he had more than most men of his type. He could see a glorious row, if Jose were beaten. It would, on the whole, be more disastrous than if he won.
"And she's just fickle-minded enough to turn up her nose at Jack if he got beat," Dade grumbled, thinking of a certain senorita. "And if he don't, the whole bunch will pile onto us. Looks to me like a worse combination than that Vigilance row, for Jack. If he wins, he gets knifed; if he don't, he gets hell. And me the only one to back him up! I'll wish I was about forty men seven foot high and armed with—"
"Pardon, Senor. The senor has of course heard the news?" Jose came out of the shadows and stood with the firelight dancing on his face and picking out the glittery places on his jacket, where was the braid. "I have a letter from Don Andres. Would the senor care to read it? No? The senor is welcome to read. I have no wish to keep anything hidden which concerns this matter. I have brought the letter, and I want to say that the wishes of my friend, Don Andres, shall be granted. Except," he added, coming closer, "that I shall fight to the death. I wish the Senor Allen to understand this, though it must he held a secret between us three. An accident it must appear to those who watch, because the duelo will be proclaimed a sport; but to the death I will fight, and I trust that the Senor Allen will fight as I fight. Does the senor understand?"
"Yes, but I can't promise anything for Jack." Dade studied Jose quietly through the smoke of his cigarette. "Jack will fight to please himself, and nobody can tell how that will be, except that it won't be tricky. He may want to kill you, and he may not. I don't know. If he does, he'll try his damnedest, you can bank on that."
"But you, Senor—do you not see that to fight for a prize merely is to belittle—" Jose waved a hand eloquently.
"I see you're taking life pretty serious," Dade retorted, moving farther along the log. "Sit down, Jose, and be sociable. Nothing like seeing the point of a joke, if there is one. Do you reckon anything's worth all the heart-burnings you're indulging in? Some things are tough; I've waded kinda deep, myself, so I know. But there's nothing you can't get over, with time and lots of common sense, except being a sneak—and being dead. To me, one's as bad as the other, with maybe first choice on death. You aren't a sneak, and I don't see why you hanker to be dead. What do you want to fight to the death for?"
Jose did not sit down beside Dade, but he came a little closer, "Why do I want to fight to the death? I will tell you, Senor; I am not ashamed. Since I was a child I have loved that senorita whom I will not name to you. Only last Christmas time the senora, her mother, said I must wait but a year longer till she was a little older. They would keep their child a little longer, and truly her heart is the heart of a child. But she knew; and I think she waited also and was happy. But look you, Senor! Then comes a stranger and steals—
"Ah, you ask me why must I fight to the death? Senor, you are a man; perchance you have loved—for of a truth I see sometimes the sadness in your eyes. You know that I must fight thus. You know that to kill that blue-eyed one is all there is left to do. Me, I could have put him out of the way before now, for there are many knives ready to do me the service. Kill him I shall, Senor; but it shall be in fight; and if the senorita sees—good. She shall know then that at least it is not a coward or a weakling who loves her. Do you ask why—"
Dade's hands went out, dismissing the question. "No, I don't ask another blamed thing. Go ahead and fight. Fight to kill, if that's the only thing that will satisfy you. You two aren't the first to lock horns over a woman. Jack seems just as keen for it as you are, so I don't reckon there's any stopping either one of you. But it does seem a pity!"
"Why does it seem a pity?" Jose's tone was insistent.
"It seems a pity," Dade explained doggedly, "to see two fine fellows like you and Jack trying to kill each other for a girl—that isn't worth the life of either one of you!"
In two steps Jose confronted him, his hand lifted to strike. Dade, looking up at him, flicked the ashes from his cigarette with his forefinger, but that was the only move he made. Jose's hand trembled and came down harmlessly by his side.
"I was mistaken," he said, smiling queerly. "You have never loved any woman, Senor; and I think the sadness I have seen in your eyes is for yourself, that life has cheated you so. If you had known love, you could never have said that. Love, Senor, is worth everything a man has to give—even his life. You would know that, if you had ever loved." He waited a moment, closed his teeth upon further words, turned abruptly on his heel and went away into the fog-darkened night.
Dade, with a slight curl to his lips that did not look quite like a smile, stared into the fire, where the embers were growing charred for half their length, and the flames were waving wearily and shrinking back to the coals, and the coals themselves were filmed with gray. The cigarette went cold and clammy in his fingers, and in his eyes was that sadness of which Jose had spoken; and something else besides.
They would fight, those two, and fight to kill. Since the world was first peopled, men had fought as they would fight—for love; for the possession of a pretty thing—warm, capricious, endearing, with possibly a heart and a soul beneath; possibly. And love—what was love, after all? What is love worth? He had loved her, too; at least, he had felt all the emotions that either of them had felt for her. He was not sure that he did not still feel them, or would if he let himself go. He did not believe, however, that those emotions were worth more than everything else in the world; more than his life, or honor, or friendship. He had choked love, strangled it, starved it for sake of friendship; and, sitting there staring abstractedly into the filming coals, he wondered if he had done wrong; if those two were right, and love was worth fighting for.
The man who fought the hardest, he felt, would in this case win that for which he fought. For he felt in his heart, that Teresita was only a pretty little animal, the primitive woman who would surrender to strength; and that he would win in the end who simply refused to yield before her coquetries.
With a quick, impatient gesture he threw his cigarette into the coals, kicked viciously a lazily smoking brand which sent up a little blaze and a spurt of sparks that died almost immediately to dull coals again.
"Love's like that," he muttered pessimistically, standing up and stretching his arms mechanically. "And the winner loses in the end; maybe not always, but he will in this case. Poor old Jack! After all, she ain't worth it. If she was—" His chin went down for a minute or two, while he stared again at the fire. "If she was, I'd—But she ain't. Love's worth—what is love worth, anyway?"
He did not answer the question with any degree of positiveness, and he went to bed wishing that he had never seen the valley of Santa Clara.
To give a clear picture of the preparations for that fiesta, one should be able to draw with strokes as swift as the horses that galloped up and down the valley at the behest of riders whose minds titillated with whatever phase of the fiesta appealed to them most; and paint with colors as vivid as were the dreams of the women, from the peonas in the huts to the senoritas and senoras murmuring behind the shelter of their vines.
One would need tell of those who went boldly into the mountains to find a grizzly bear and bring it alive and unhurt to the pen, which the peons, with feverish zeal and much chattering amongst themselves, were building close beside the smallest corral.
A great story it would make—the tale of that hunt! A man came back from it with a forearm torn sickeningly, to show how brave he had been. And the bear came also—a great, gaunt she-bear with two cubs whimpering beside her in the cage, and in her eyes a sullen hunger for the giant redwoods that stood so straight and strong together upon the steep slopes while they sang crooningly the songs she knew of old, and a glowing hatred for her captors.
A story that would make! A story in which Jerry Simpson and Tige played valiant part and bore more than their share of the danger, and became heroes to those who went with them.
One would need to picture somehow the bubbling excitement of Teresita, while she planned and replanned her festal garments, and tell how often she found it necessary to ride with Jack across the valley to talk the matter over with the "pretty Senora" Simpson, or to the Mission San Jose to see what Rosa had at last decided to wear.
Then, there would be the solemn conferences in the kitchen, between Margarita and the senora herself; conferences that had to do with cakes and preserves and the like, with the ninos getting in every one's way, while they listened and smacked lips over the very naming of so many good things to eat.
One would need see the adobe corral that was to be transformed into an amphitheater where were hammering and clatter from sunrise till dark, without even a pause for midday siesta amongst those lazy peons who would sleep over their cigarettes, though the padres stood over them predicting the end of the world the next moment.
Well in the foreground of the picture would be Jack, to be sure; Jack riding far afield upon Surry, whom he had found the best horse for his purpose upon the whole ranch; lassoing cattle to get his hand in, practising certain little twists of his own invention, and teaching Surry to know without fail just what certain signals meant, and obey instantly and implicitly when they were given.
Sometimes, when the senorita was not in a perverse mood, she would ride with him and applaud his dexterity; at other times she would boast of Jose's marvelous skill, and pity Jack in advance for the defeat which she pretended was inevitable. Whether she pitied or praised, she seemed always sincere for the moment, so that Jack gave up any lingering hope of knowing how she really felt about it, and contented himself with the determination to deflect all the pity towards Jose when the time came, and keep the praise for himself.
There would be other contests; and scarce a day passed wherein no horse loped heavily up the slope and stopped with heaving flanks in the patio, while its rider dismounted and bowed low before Don Andres, giving news of some vaquero who wished his name to be listed as a contestant in the riding, or the lassoing and tying of steers, or in the bull-fight, perchance.
But there was no third name offered in the riata contest for which Solano was announced as a prize. All up and down the valley; at the ranches, on the trails when men met and stopped to talk awhile, and around the camp-fires of the rodeo they talked of it; and many bets would have been laid upon the outcome, had not all men been of one mind. When Jose was not present, or Dade, or the more outspoken of the Picardo vaqueros, always they spoke of it as the duelo riata, and took it for granted that it would be fought to the death. Thus are secrets kept from men who can read from their own natures the truth! The men of Santa Clara lowered lids and smiled whenever they spoke of it as a contest, for as a duel had the word first gone forth from the exultant lips of Manuel; as a duel would it still remain among themselves, spite of the fiesta and the prize that was offered, and the reiteration that it was but sport.
One should picture the whole valley for the background; a sunken paradise of greenery, splotched with color, made alive with bird-songs and racing cloud-shadows on the grass; with the wooded slopes of the Santa Cruz mountains closing in upon the west and sheltering it from the sweeping winds from off the ocean, and the grassy hills rising high and rugged on the east, giving rich pasturage to the cattle and all the wild things that fed there.
When it was complete—that picture—then might one weep to be there in the midst of it all! For there would be much laughter, and the love-making would make young pulses beat fast to think upon. There would be dancing, and the tinkle of guitars and mandolins, and a harp or two to beat a harmonious surf-song beneath the waves of melody. There would be feasting, with whole beeves roasted over pits which the peons were already digging in their dreams; with casks of wine from the don's own vineyard to wash down the juicy morsels. There would be all that throughout one long, moonlit night, with the day of sports to think back upon. And through the night they would talk of the duelo riata between two men who loved one little senorita who laughed much and cared little, said certain wise senoras, and nodded their heads while they said it.
What if some hearts were bitter over the prospect? From Santa Barbara, even, were they coming to the fiesta! (Gustavo had the news from a peon who came straight through from Paso Robles on an errand for his master.)
What if Dade, thinking and thinking until his brain was dizzy, lay long hours awake in his blankets and stared up at the star-sprinkle in the purple night-sky, trying to find a path that would lead to peace? The senorita lay awake also, thinking smilingly that she had nearly finished the embroidery upon the bodice she meant to wear, and that the pretty senora had promised to do her black hair in a new and wonderful way that should smart with envy the eyes of all the other senoritas when they saw; and that the senora her mother had reluctantly promised that she should wear the gold chain with the rubies glowing along every little thumb-length of it; thinking also, perhaps, of how she had made the Senor Jack's eyes grow dark and then flash anger-lights, when she taunted him again about going to the wise old woman at the Mission San Jose for a charm to make the riata fly true!
What if the old don, seeing also that trouble hung like a vulture over the feast, paced uneasily up and down the vine-hidden veranda, while he meditated upon the follies of youth? The young steers that had been driven in for the roasting-pits were trampling uneasily about the little corral where they had been put to fatten; and Gustavo walked with his head thrown back upon his shoulders that he might read that open page which was the sky, and to any anxious ones who asked, he had but one answer and that a comforting one:
"The day will be a day of sunshine, with linnets singing in the trees and the smallest breeze to cool the cheek." The anxious ones, hearing so good an augury, would pass on, their thoughts upon the day-of-days and on their lips a little smile.
LOST! TWO HASTY TEMPERS
"One more throw, and then no more until the contest," Jack announced placatingly, when he spied a lone bull standing just before a thicket of chaparral and staring at them with stupid resentment that his siesta had been disturbed. "A kiss for luck, little one!"
Riata coiled in his hand, Jack rode closer and leaned to the girl, his eyes and his voice caressing, his lips quivering for the kiss he craved. It had come to kisses long before then, and to half promises, when her mood was tender, that she would marry her blue-eyed one—sometime.
Just now her mood was not tender. Jack was not to blame, nor was the pretty Senora Simpson, although Mrs. Jerry was quite innocently and unconsciously the cause. Mrs. Jerry had a headache, that day, and a fit of the blues; and from the first moment when Teresita had entered the cabin she had felt a lack of warmth in the pretty senora's manner that had piqued her, who had lived upon adoration all her life. Mrs. Jerry had even shown a disposition to shirk keeping her promise anent the new way of doing Teresita's hair.
She said that she didn't think she'd go to the fiesta, after all—which was like calmly telling a priest that one does not, after all, feel as if heaven is worth striving for.
Teresita failed to see how the wistfulness was quite submerging the twinkle in Mrs. Jerry's eyes, and if she had seen, she would never have guessed what put it there; nor would she have understood why Mrs. Jerry might shrink from attending that magnificent festival, perhaps the only gringo woman in all the crowd, and a pitifully shabby gringo woman at that. To her mind, Mrs. Jerry was beautiful and perfect, even in her shapeless brown dress that was always clean. Teresita herself would never have worn that dress at all, yet it did not occur to her that Mrs. Jerry might have some very feminine quality of pride crowded down into some corner of her sweet nature. So Teresita was mightily offended at what she considered a slight from the only gringo woman she had ever known; and she was also bitterly disappointed over the abandonment of the new coiffure.
"Why don't you wear it just the way it is, honey?" Mrs. Jerry had suggested—and very sensibly, too. "I wouldn't go and twist it all up and stick pins through it, if I was you. It's prettier just that way."
Teresita had understood enough of that, thanks to the teachings of her blue-eyed one, to know that the pretty senora did not mean to keep her promise. She had gone almost immediately to the cabin door to tell Jack that she was ready to go home. And Jack, deep in one of those interminable conversations with Jerry himself, over on the pile of logs that would one day be a stable if Jerry's hopes reached fruition, had merely waved his hand carelessly when he saw her, and had given all his attention to Jerry again.
Of course, Teresita could not know that they were discussing a brief but rancorous encounter which Jerry had had with Manuel that morning, when the two happened to meet farther down the valley while Manuel was riding his share of the rodeo circle. Two of Jose's men had been with Manuel, and their attitude had been "purty derned upstropolus," according to Jerry. (Jack decided after a puzzled minute that the strange word which Jerry spoke with such relish must be Simpsonese for obstreperous.) They had, in fact, attempted to drive off three of Jerry's oxen to the rodeo ground, and only the characteristic "firmness" of Jerry had prevented them from doing it. Jemina, he said, had helped some when pointed at Manuel's scowling face; but Jerry opined that he would hereafter take the twins along too when he rode out anywhere, and that he guessed he'd cut another loophole or two in his cabin walls.
All of these various influences had created an atmosphere which Teresita felt and resented without attempting to understand. The big senor had not given her the smiles and the funny attempts at conversation which she had come to accept as a matter of course. The pretty senora had not been as enthusiastic as she should have been, when Teresita showed her the ruby chain which, like a child, she had brought over for the pretty senora to admire.
Therefore, Jack's lips found reason to tighten and cease their eager quivering for a kiss. For Teresita twitched her shoulders pettishly and her reins dexterously, and so removed herself some distance from the kissing zone.
"No? Well, I'll have to depend on my good riata, then. I'll take that gentleman at twenty-five feet, and if I can get him to run right, I'll heel him. Don't ride any closer, Teresita."
He had not called her dulce corazon (sweetheart) as she had expected him to call her; he had not even insisted upon the kiss, but had given up altogether too tamely; and for that she rode closer to the bull in spite. She even had some notion of getting in Jack's way, and of making him miss if she could. She was seventeen, you see, and she was terribly spoiled.
Jack had never made any attempt to study the psychological twists of a woman's nature. He contented himself with loving, and with being straightforward and selfish and a bit arrogant in his love, after the manner of the normal man. It would never occur to him that Teresita was piqued because he had not called her sweetheart, and he straightway sinned more grievously still.
"Go back, the other way! He's liable to start in your direction," he cried, intent upon her safety and his own whim to rope the beast.
Teresita deliberately kicked her horse and loped forward.
It would not be nice to say that bulls are like some humans, but it is a fact that they are extremely illogical animals, full of impulses and whims that have absolutely no relation to cause or effect. This bull had not moved except to roll his eyes from one to the other of the riders. If he meditated war he should, by all the bovine traditions of warfare, have bellowed a warning and sent up a whiff or two of dirt over his back, as one has a right to expect a pessimistic bull to do. Instead of which he flung down his head and made an unexpected rush at Teresita—and Jack had left his pistols at home.
Jack's riata was coiled in his hand and his head was turned towards the girl, his brain busy with his thoughts of her and her wilfulness. From the tail of his eye he caught the first lunge of the bull, and that automatic mental adjustment to unexpected situations, which we call presence of mind, sent a knee-signal to Surry which that intelligent animal obeyed implicitly.
Surry rushed straight at the bull, but the triangle was a short one, and there was much to do in that quarter of a minute. Teresita was stubborn and would not turn and run; but she happened to be riding Tejon, who knew something about bulls and was capable of acting upon his knowledge. He whirled with hind feet for a pivot and ducked away from the horns coming at him, and it was not one second too soon. The bull swept by, so close that a slaver of foam was flung against Teresita's skirt as he passed.
He whirled to come back at the girl—and that time he seemed sure to give that vicious, ripping jab he had so narrowly missed giving before; even the girl saw that he would, and turned a little pale, and Tejon's eyes glazed with terror.
But Jack had gained the second he needed—the second that divided adventure from tragedy. The riata loop shot from his upflung hand and sped whimperingly on its errand, even as Tejon tried to swing away, tripped, and tumbled to his knees. The riata caught the lifted forefeet of the bull just as he stiffened his neck for the lunge. Surry braced himself automatically when Jack drew tight the loop, and the bull went down with a thud and lay with his forefeet held high in air, so close to his quarry that the tip of one horn struck Tejon upon the knee and flicked a raw, red spot there.
Then Jack, in the revulsion from deadly fear to relief, was possessed by one of those gusts of nervous rage that seized him sometimes; such a brief fit of rage as made him kill lustfully three men in the space of three heart-beats, almost, and feel regret because he could not keep on killing.
He did not run to Teresita and comfort her for her fright, as a lover ought to have done. Instead he gave her one look as he went by, and that a look of indignation for her foolishness. He ran to the bull, drew his knife from his sash and tried to stab it in the brain; but his hand shook so that he missed and only gave it a glancing gash that let much blood flow. He swore and struck again, snapping the dagger blade short off against the horns. Whereupon he threw the dagger violently from him and gave an angry kick at the animal, as if he would kill it that way.
"Savage!" cried Teresita, hysterically shrill. "Brute! Leave the poor thing alone! It has done nothing, that you should beat it while it cannot fight back."
Jack, lifting his spurred foot for another kick, set it down and turned to her dazedly.
In her way as shaken by her narrow escape as he was himself, she straightway called him brute and savage again, and sentimentally pitied the bull because he lay upon his back with his front feet in the air, and because the gash on his head was bleeding.
Jack's rage passed as quickly as it came; but it left him stubborn under her recriminations.
"You are very soft-hearted, all of a sudden, senorita," he said, with a fairly well-defined sneer, when he could bear no more. "You won't enjoy the bull-fighting, then, to-morrow—for all you have been looking forward to it so anxiously, and have robbed yourself of ribbons to decorate the darts. It's not half so brutal to kill a bull that tries to kill you, as it is to fill it with flag-trimmed arrows for fun, and only put it out of its misery when you're tired of seeing it suffer! This bull came near killing you! That's why I'm going to kill it."
"You are not! Santa Maria, what a savage beast you are! Let him go instantly! Let him go, I say!"
If she had been on the ground, she would have stamped her foot. As it was, she shook an adorably tiny fist at Jack, and blinked her long lashes upon the tears of real, sincere anger that stood in her black eyes, and gritted her teeth at him; for the senorita had a temper quite as hot as Jack's, when it was roused, and all her life she had been given her own way in everything.
"Let him go this moment, or I shall never speak to you again!" she threatened rashly.
For answer, Jack walked deliberately past her to where Surry stood with his feet braced still against the pull of the riata and his neck arched knowingly, while he rolled the little wheel in the bit with his tongue. Jack made himself a cigarette, lay down in the shade of his horse, and smoked just as calmly as though his heart was not thumping so that he could hear it quite plainly. She had gone the wrong way about making him yield; threats had always acted like a goad upon Jack's anger, just as they do upon most of us.
Teresita looked at him in silence for a minute. And Jack, his head upon his arm in a position that would give him a fair view of her from the brim of his sombrero while he seemed to be taking no notice of her, wondered how soon she would change her mood to coaxing, and so melt that lump of obstinacy in his throat that would not let him so much as answer her vixenish upbraidings. A very little coaxing would have freed the bull then, and he would have kissed the red mouth that had reviled him, and would have called her "dulce corazon," as she loved to have him do. Such a very little coaxing would have been enough!
"Dios! How I hate a gringo!" she cried passionately, just when Jack believed she was going to cry "Senor Jack?" in that pretty, cooing tone she had that could make the words as tender as a kiss. "Jose is right. Gringos are savages and worse than savages. Stay and torture your bull, then! I hate you! Never have I known hate, till now! I shall be glad when Jose drags you from your horse to-morrow. I shall laugh and clap my hands, and cry, 'Bravo, bravo, querido mio!' [my beloved] when you are flung into the dirt where you belong. And when he kills you, I shall kiss him for his reward, before all the people, and I shall laugh when they fling you to the coyotes!" Yes, she said that; for she had a temper—had the Senorita Teresita—and she had a tongue that could speak words that burned like vitriol.
She said more than has been quoted; epithets she hurled upon the recumbent form that seemed a man asleep save for the little drift of smoke from his cigarette; epithets which she had heard the vaqueros use at the corrals upon certain occasions when they did not know that she was near; epithets of which she did not know the meaning at all.
"Bravo!" applauded some one, and she turned to see that Manuel and Carlos, Jose's head vaquero, had ridden up to the group very quietly, and had been listening for no one knew how long.
The senorita was so angry that she was not in the least abashed by the eavesdropping. She smiled wickedly, drew off a glove and tossed it to Manuel, who caught it dexterously without waiting to see why she wanted him to have it.
"Take that to Jose, for a token," she cried recklessly. "Tell him I have put a wish upon it; and if he wears it next his heart in the duelo to-morrow he will win without fail. Tell Jose I shall ask the Blessed Virgin to-night to let no accident befall him, and that I shall save the first two dances for him and none other!"
She was not a finished actress, because of her youth. She betrayed by a glance his way that she spoke for Jack's benefit. And Jack, in the hardening of his stubborn anger, blew a mouthful of smoke upward into a ring which the breeze broke almost immediately, and laughed aloud.
Teresita heard, bit her lips cruelly at failing to bring that stubborn gringo to his feet—and to hers!—and wheeled Tejon close to Manuel and Carlos. She rode away between the two towards home, and she did not once look behind her until she had gone so far she feared she could not see what her blue-eyed one was doing. Then she turned, and her teeth went together with a click. For Jack was lying just as she had left him, with his head upon his arm as if he might be asleep.
Dade, rolling over in bed and at the same moment opening his eyes reluctantly upon the new day, that he hated, beheld Jack half-dressed and shaving his left jaw, and looking as if he were committing murder upon an enemy. Dade watched him idly; he could afford the luxury of idleness that morning; for rodeo was over, and he was lying between linen sheets on a real bed, under a roof other than the branches of a tree; and if his mind had rested as easily as his body, he would have been almost happy.
But this was the day of the fiesta; and with the remembrance of that vital fact came a realization that on this day the Picardo ranch would be the Mecca toward which all California was making pilgrimage; and, he feared, the battle-ground of the warring interests and prejudices of the pilgrims themselves.
Dade listened to the voices shouting orders and greetings without as the vaqueros hurried here and there in excited preparations for the event. He judged that not another man in the valley was in bed at that moment, unless sickness held him there; and for that very reason he pulled a blanket snugger about his ears and tried to make himself believe that he was enjoying to the full his laziness. He had earned it; and last night had been the first one of deep, unbroken sleep that he had had since that moonlit night when Manuel and Valencia rode in haste to meet this surly-browed fellow before him.
Jack did not wipe off the scowl with the lather, and Dade began to observe him more critically; which he had not before had an opportunity to do, for the reason that Jack had not returned to the ranch the night before until Dade was in bed and asleep.
"Say, you don't want to let the fellows outside see you looking like that," he remarked, when Jack had yanked a horn comb through his red-brown mop of hair as if he were hoeing corn.
"Why?" Jack turned on him truculently.
"Well, you look a whole lot like a man that expects a licking. And I don't see any excuse for that; you're sure to win, old man. I'd bet my last shirt on that." Which was Dade's method of wiping off the scowl.
"Say, Dade," Jack began irrelevantly, "I'm going to use Surry. You don't mind, do you? He's the best horse I ever threw a rope off from, without any exceptions. I've been training him up a little, and I tell you what, Surry's going to have a lot to do with that duel."
Dade sat up in bed as if he had been pulled up. "Jack, are you going to make it a sure-enough duel?" he asked anxiously.
"Why?" Jack's eyes hardened perceptibly. "That's what Jose wants."
"Do you want it?" Dade scowled absent-mindedly at the wall, felt the prick of an unpleasant thought, and glanced sharply at Jack.
"Say, I feel sorry for Jose," he began straightforwardly. "As a man, I'd like him fine, if he'd let me. And, Jack, you've got everything coming your way, and—well, seems like you might go easy on this fight, no matter what Jose wants. He's crazy jealous, of course—but you want to recollect that he has plenty of cause. You've stepped in between him and a girl he's known all his life. They were practically engaged, before—"
"I don't know as Jose's love affairs interest me," put in Jack harshly. "Do you care if I use Surry? I kinda took it for granted it would be all right, so I went ahead and trained him so I can bank on him in a pinch."
"Of course you can use him." That Dade's hesitation did not cover more than a few seconds was proof of his absolute loyalty to Jack. Not another man living could have used Surry in a struggle such as that would be; a struggle where the danger was not all for the rider, but must be shared equally by the horse. Indeed, Dade himself would not have ridden him in such a contest, because his anxiety lest Surry should be hurt would have crippled his own dexterity. But Jack wanted to ride Surry, and Dade's lips smiled consent to the sacrifice.
"All right, then. That horse is sure a wonder, Dade. Sensible? You never saw anything like it! I never saw a horse so sensitive to—well, I suppose it's muscular reactions that I'm unconscious of. I've tried him out without a bridle on him; and, Dade, I can sit perfectly still in the saddle, and he'll turn wherever I make up my mind to go! Fact. You try it yourself, next time you ride him. So I've cultivated that faculty of his, this last month.
"And besides, I've got him trained to dodge a rope every time. Had Diego go out with me and try to lasso me, you know. I had one devil of a time with the Injun, too, to make him disrespectful enough to throw a rope at me. But Surry took to it like a she-bear to honey, and he's got so he can gauge distances to a hair, now, and dodge it every pass. I'm going to ride him to-day with a hackamore; and you watch him perform, old man! I can turn him on a tin plate, just with pressing my knees. That horse will—"
"Say, you're stealing my thunder," drawled Dade, grinning. "That's my privilege, to sing Surry's praises. Haven't I told you, right along, that he's a wonder?"
"Well, you told the truth for once in your life, anyway. Get up, you lazy devil, and come out and take a look at him. I'm going to have Diego give him a bath, soon as the sun gets hot enough. I've got a color scheme that will make these natives bug their eyes out! And Surry's got to be considerably whiter than snow—"
"Huh!" Dade was watching him closely while he listened. For all Jack's exuberance of speech, there was the hard look in his eyes still; and there was a line between his eyebrows which Dade had never noticed there before, except as a temporary symptom of anger. He had, Dade remembered, failed to make any statement of his intentions toward Jose; which was not like Jack, who was prone to speak impulsively and bluntly his mind. Also, it occurred to Dade that he had not once mentioned Teresita, although, before the rodeo his talk had been colored with references to the girl.
"Oh, how's the senorita, by the way?" Dade asked deliberately.
"All right," returned Jack promptly, with a rising inflection, "Are you going to get up, or shall I haul you out by the heels?"
Dade, observing an evasion of that subject also, did some hard thinking while he obediently pulled on his clothes. But he said not a word more about the duel, or Jose's love-tragedy, or Teresita.
Since the first flush of dawn the dismal squeal of wooden-wheeled ox-carts had hushed the bird songs all up and down El Camino Real, and the popping of the drivers' lashes, which punctuated their objurgations to the shambling oxen, told eloquently of haste. Within canopies formed of gay, patchwork quilts and gayer serapes, heavy-jowled, swarthy senoras lurched resignedly with the jolting of the carts, and between whiles counseled restive senoritas upon the subject of deportment or gossiped idly of those whom they expected to meet at the fiesta.
The Picardo hacienda was fairly wiped clean of its, comfortable home-atmosphere, so immaculate was it and so plainly held ready for ceremonious festivities. The senora herself went about with a linen dust-cloth in her hand, and scolded because the smoke from the fires which the peons had tended all night in the barbecue pits was borne straight toward the house by the tricksy west wind, and left cinders and grime upon windows closed against it. The patio was swept clean of dust and footprints, and the peons scarce dared to cross it in their scurrying errands hither and thither.
In the orchard many caballeros fresh from the rodeo were camped, their waiting-time spent chiefly in talking of the thing they meant to do or hoped to see, while they polished spur-shanks and bridle trimmings.
Horses were being groomed painstakingly at the corrals, and there was always a group around the bear-pen where the two cubs whimpered, and the gaunt mother rolled wicked, little, bloodshot eyes at those who watched and dropped pebbles upon her outraged nose and like cowards remained always beyond her reach.
In the small corral near by, the bulls bellowed hoarsely at the scent of their grizzly neighbor and tossed dirt menacingly over their backs; while above them the rude tiers of seats waited emptily for the yelling humans who would crowd them later. Beyond, under a great, wide-spreading live oak near the roasting pits, three fat young steers swung by their heels from a horizontal limb, ready for the huge gridirons that stood leaning against the trunk behind them. Indeed, the heads of those same steers were even then roasting in their hide in the smaller pit of their own, where the ashes were still warm, though the fire had been drawn over-night.
The sun was not more than two hours high when Don Andres himself appeared in his gala dress upon the veranda, to greet in flowery Spanish the first arrivals among his guests. The senora, he explained courteously, was still occupied, and the senorita, he averred fondly, was sleeping still, because there would be no further opportunity to sleep for many hours; but his house and all that he had was half theirs, and they would honor him most by entering into their possessions.
Whereupon the senoras and the senoritas settled themselves in comfortable chairs and waited, and inspected the house of this lord of the valley, whose luxury was something to envy. Some of those senoras walked upon bare, earthen floors when they were at home, and their black eyes rested hungrily upon the polished, dark wood beneath their feet, and upon the rugs that had come from Spain along with the paintings upon the walls. They looked, and craned, and murmured comments until the senora appeared, a little breathless and warm from her last conference with Margarita in the kitchen, and turned their tongues upon the festival.
Dade was just finishing the rite of shaving, and thinking the while that he would give all that he possessed, including Surry, if he could whisk Jack and himself to the cool, pine slope in the Sierras where was their mine. Every day of waiting and gossiping over the duel had but fostered the feeling of antagonism among the men of the valley, and whatever might be the outcome of that encounter, Dade could see no hope of avoiding an open clash between the partisans of the two combatants. Valencia and Pancho and two or three others of the Picardo vaqueros, who hated Manuel—and therefore had no love for Jose—would be more than likely to side with him and Jack, though he honestly wished that they would not; for the more friends they had when the test was made, the greater would be the disturbance, especially since there would be wine for all; and wine never yet served to cool a temper or lull excitement.
Without in the least realizing it, Dade's face while he shaved wore a scowl quite as pronounced as the one that had called his attention to Jack's mood. And, more significant, he had no sooner finished than he looked into his little box of pistol caps to see how many he had left, and inspected the pistol as well; for the law of self-preservation strikes deeper than most emotions, and his life had mostly been lived where men must frequently fight for the right to live; and in such surroundings the fighting instinct wakes at the first hint of antagonism.
"My riata's gone!" announced Jack breathlessly, bursting into the room at that moment as if he expected to find the thief there. "I left it on my saddle last night, and now—"
"And that was a fool thing to do, I must say!" commented Dade, startled into harshness. He slid the pistol into its holster and buckled the belt around his muscular body with fingers that moved briskly. "Well, my riata's no slouch—you can use it. You've used it before."
"I don't want yours. I've got used to my own. I know to an inch just where it will land—oh, damn the luck—It was some of those fellows camped by the orchard, and when I find out which—"
"Keep your head on, anyway," advised Dade more equably. "Your nerves must be pretty well frazzled. If you let a little thing like this upset you, how do you expect—"
"It ain't a little thing!" gritted Jack, loading his pistols hurriedly. "That six-strand riata has got a different feel, a different weight—oh, you know it's going to make all the difference in the world when I get out there with Jose. Whoever took it knew what it meant, all right! Some one—"
"Where's Surry?" A sudden fear sent Dade hurrying to the door. "By the Lord Harry, if they've hurt Surry—" He jerked the door open and went out, Jack hard upon his heels.
"I didn't think of that," Jack confessed on the way to the stable, and got a look of intense disgust from Dade, which he mitigated somewhat by his next remark. "Diego was to sleep in the stall last night."
"Oh." Dade slackened his pace a bit. "Why didn't you say so?"
"I think," retorted Jack, grinning a little, "somebody else's nerves are kinda frazzled, too. I don't want you to begin worrying over my affairs, Dade. I'm not," he asserted with unconvincing emphasis. "But all the same, I'd like to get my fingers on the fellow that took my riata!"
Since he formulated that wish after he reached the doorway of the roomy box-stall where Surry was housed, he faced a badly scared peon as the door swung open.
"Senor—I—pardon, Senor! But I feared that harm might come to the riata in the night. There are many guests, Senor, who speak ill of gringos, and I heard a whisper—"
Jack, gripping Diego by the shoulders, halted his nervous explanations. "What about the riata?" he cried. "Do you know where it is?"
"Si, Senor. Me, I took it from the senor's saddle, for I feared harm would be done if it were left there to tempt those who would laugh to see the senor dragged to the death to-day. Senor, that is Jose's purpose; from a San Vincente vaquero I heard—and he had it from the lips of Manuel. Jose will lasso the senor, and the horse will run away with Jose, and the senor will be killed. Ah, Senor!—Jose's skill is great; and Manuel swears that now he will truly fight like a demon, because the prayers of the senorita go with Jose. Her glove she sent him for a token—Manuel swears that it is so, and a message that he is to kill thee, Senor!"
"But my riata?" To Diego's amazement, his blue-eyed god seemed not in the least disturbed, either by plot or gossip.
"Ah, the riata! Last night I greased it well, Senor, so that to-day it would be soft. And this morning at daybreak I stretched it here in the stall and rubbed it until it shone. Now it is here, Senor, where no knife-point can steal into it and cunningly cut the strands that are hidden, so that the senor would not observe and would place faith upon it and be betrayed." Diego lifted his loose, linen shirt and disclosed the riata coiled about his middle.
The eyes of his god, when they rested upon the brown body wrapped round and round with the rawhide on which his life would later hang, were softer than they had been since he had craved the kiss that had been denied him, many hours before. It was only the blind worship and the loyalty of a peon whose feet were bare, whose hands were calloused with labor, whose face was seamed with the harshness of his serfdom. Only a peon's loyalty; but something hard and bitter and reckless, something that might have proved a more serious handicap than a strange riata, dropped away from Jack's mood and left him very nearly his normal self. It was as if the warmth of the rawhide struck through the chill which Teresita's unreasoning spite had brought to the heart of him, and left there a little glow.
"Gracias, Diego," he said, and smiled in the way that made one love him. "Let it stay until I have need of it. It will surely fly true, to-day, since it has been warmed thus by thy friendship."
From an impulse of careless kindness he said it, even though he had been touched by the peon's anxiety for his welfare. But Diego's heart was near to bursting with gratitude and pride; those last two words—he would not have exchanged the memory of them for the gold medal itself. That his blue-eyed god should address him, a mere peon, as "thy," the endearing, intimate pronoun kept for one's friends! The tears stood in Diego's black eyes when he heard; and Diego was no weakling, but a straight-backed stoic of an Indian, who stood almost as tall as the Senor Jack himself and who could throw a full-grown steer to the ground by twisting its head. He bowed low and turned to fumble the sweet, dried grasses in Surry's manger; and beneath his coarse shirt the feel of the rawhide was sweeter than the embrace of a loved woman.
"You want to take mighty good care of this little nag of mine," Dade observed irrelevantly, his fingers combing wistfully the crinkly mane. "There'll never be another like him in this world. And if there was, it wouldn't be him."
"I reckon it's asking a good deal of you, to think of using him at all." For the first time Jack became conscious of his selfishness. "I won't, Dade, if you'd rather I didn't."
"Don't be a blamed idiot. You know I want you to go ahead and use him; only—I'd hate to see him hurt."
To Dade the words seemed to be wrenched from the very fibers of his friendship. He loved that horse more than he had ever believed he could love an animal; and he was mentally sacrificing him to Jack's need.
Jack went up and rubbed Surry's nose playfully; and it cost Dade a jealous twinge to see how the horse responded to the touch.
"He won't get hurt. I've taught him how to take care of himself; haven't I, Diego?" And he put the statement into Spanish, so that the peon could understand.
"Si, he will never let the riata touch him, Senor. Truly, it is well that he will come at the call, for otherwise he would never again he caught!" Diego grinned, checked himself on the verge of venturing another comment, and tilted his head sidewise instead, his ears perked toward the medley of fiesta sounds outside.
"Listen, Senors! That is not the squeal of carts alone, which I hear. It is the carriage that has wheels made of little sticks, that chatters much when it moves. Americanos are coming, Senors."
"Americanos!" Dade glanced quickly at Jack, mutely questioning. "I wonder if—" He gave Surry a hasty, farewell slap on the shoulder and went out into the sunshine and the clamor of voices and laughter, with the creaking of carts threaded through it all. The faint, unmistakable rattle of a wagon driven rapidly, came towards them. While they stood listening, came also a confused jumble of voices emitting sounds which the two guessed were intended for a song. A little later, above the high-pitched rattle of the wagon wheels, they heard the raucous, long-drawn "Yank-ee doo-oo-dle da-a-andy!" which confirmed their suspicions and identified the comers as gringos beyond a doubt.
"Must be a crowd from San Francisco," said Jack needlessly. "I wrote and told Bill about the fiesta, when I sent up after some clothes. I told him to come down and take it in—and I guess he's coming."
Bill was; and he was coming largely, emphatically, and vaingloriously. He had a wagon well loaded with his more intimate friends, including Jim. He had a following of half his Committee of Vigilance and all the men of like caliber who could find a horse or a mule to straddle. Even the Roman-nosed buckskin of sinister history was in the van of the procession that came charging up the slope with all the speed it could muster after the journey from the town on the tip of the peninsula.
In the wagon were a drum, two fifes, a cornet, and much confusion of voices. Bill, enthroned upon the front seat beside the driver of the four-horse team, waved both arms exuberantly and started the song all over again, so that they had to sing very fast indeed in order to finish by the time they swung up to the patio and stopped.
Bill scrambled awkwardly down over the wheel and gripped the hands of those two whose faces welcomed him without words. "Well, we got here," he announced, including the whole cavalcade with one sweeping gesture. "Started before daylight, too, so we wouldn't miss none of the doings." He tilted his head toward Dade's ear and jerked his thumb towards the wagon. "Say! I brought the boys along, in case—" His left eyelid lowered lazily and flew up again into its normal position as Don Andres, his sombrero in his hand, came towards them across the patio, smiling a dignified welcome.
Dade spoke not a word in reply, but his eyes brightened wonderfully. There was still the element of danger, and on a larger scale than ever. But it was heartening to have Bill Wilson's capable self to stand beside him. Bill could handle turbulent crowds better than any man Dade had ever seen.
They lingered, greeting acquaintances here and there among the arrivals, until Bill was at liberty again.
"Got any greaser here that can talk white man's talk, and you can trust?" was Bill's mild way of indicating his need of an interpreter, when the fiesta crowd had grown to the proportions of a multitude that buzzed like giant bees in a tree of ripe figs.
"Why? What do you want of one? Valencia will help you out, I guess." Dade's hesitation was born of inattention rather than reluctance. He was watching the gesticulating groups of Californians as a gambler watches the faces of his opponents, and the little weather-signs did not reassure him.
"Well, there's good money to be picked out of this crowd," said Bill, pushing his hands deep into his pockets. "I can't understand their lingo, but faces talk one language; and I don't care what's the color of the skin. I've been reading what's wrote in their eyes and around their mouths. I can get big odds on Jack, here, if I can find somebody to talk for me. How about it, Jack? I've heard some say there's more than the gold medal and a horse up on this lariat game. I've heard some say you two have put your necks in the jack-pot. On the quiet, what do you reckon you're going to do to the greaser?"
Jack shifted his glance to Dade's face, tense with anxiety while he waited. He looked out over the slope dotted thickly with people, laughed briefly and mirthlessly, and then looked full at Bill.
"I reckon I'm going to kill him," he said very quietly.
Big Bill stared. "Say! I'm glad I ain't the greaser," he said dryly, answering a certain something in Jack's eyes and around his lips. Bill had heard men threaten death, before now; but he did not think of this as a threat. To him it seemed a sentence of death.
"Jack, you'll be sorry for it," warned Dade under his breath. "Don't go and—"
"I don't want to hear any remarks on the subject." Never in all the years of their friendship had Jack spoken to him in so harsh a tone. "God Almighty couldn't talk me out of it. I'm going to kill him. Let it go at that." He turned abruptly and walked away to the stable, and the two stood perfectly still and watched him out of sight.
"He'll do it, too," said Dade distressfully. "There's something in this I don't understand—but he'll do it."
THE BATTLE OF BEASTS
Sweating, impatient humans wedged tight upon the seats around the rim of the great adobe corral, waited for the bulls to dash in through the gate and be goaded into the frenzy that would thrill the spectators pleasurably. Meantime, those spectators munched sweets and gossiped, smoked cigarettes and gossiped; sweltered under the glare of the sun and gossiped; and always they talked of the gringos, who had come one hundred strong and never a woman among them; one hundred strong, and every man of them dangling pistols at his hips—pistols that could shoot six times before they must be reloaded, and shoot with marvelous exactness of aim at that; one hundred strong, and every one of the hundred making bets that the gringo with the red-brown hair would win the medalla oro from Don Jose, who three times had fought and kept it flashing on his breast, so that now no vaquero dared lift eyes to it!
Truly, those gringos were a mad people, said the gossips. They would see the blue-eyed one flung dead upon the ground, and then—would the gringos want to fight? Knives were instinctively loosened under sashes when the owners talked of the possibility. Knives are swift and keen, but those guns that could shoot six times with one loading—Gossip preferred to dwell greedily upon the details of the quarrel between the young Don Jose and his gringo rival.
There were whispers also of a quarrel between the senorita and her gringo lover, and it was said that the young senorita prayed last night that Jose would win. But there were other whispers than that: One, that the maid of the senorita had been seen to give a rose and a written message into the hands of the Senor Allen, not an hour ago; and had gone singing to her mistress again, and smiling while she sang. Truly, that did not look as if the senorita had prayed for Jose! The Senor Allen had kept the rose. Look you! It was a token, and he would doubtless wear it upon his breast in the fight, where he hoped later to wear the medalla oro—but where the hands would be folded instead while the padres said mass for him; if indeed mass could be said over a dead gringo! There was laughter to follow that conceit. And so they talked, and made the tedious time of waiting seem shorter than it was.
Late comers looked for seats, found none, and were forced to content themselves with such perches as neighboring trees and the roofs of the outbuildings might afford. Peons who had early scrambled to the insecure vantage-point of the nearest stable roof, were hustled off to make room for a group of Salinas caballeros who arrived late. This was merely the bull-fighting coming now; but bull-fighting never palls, even though bigger things are yet in store. For there is always the chance that a horse may be gored to death—even that a man may die horribly. Such things have been and may be again; so the tardy ones climbed and scurried and attained breathlessness and a final resting-place together.
Came a season of frenzied yelling, breathless moments of suspense, and stamping that threatened disaster to the seats. Two bulls in succession had been let into the corral, bellowed under the shower of be-ribboned barbs and went down, fighting valiantly to the last.
Blood-lusting, the great crowd screamed importunities for more. "Bring out the bear!" was their demand. "Let us see that she-bear fight the big bull which has been reserved for the combat!"
Now, this was ticklish work for the Picardo vaqueros who were stage-managing the sport. From the top of the corral above the bear-cage they made shift to slide the oaken gate built across an opening into the adobe corral. Through the barred ceiling of the pen they prodded the bear from her sulking and sent her, malevolent and sullen, into the arena. (Senoras tucked vivid skirts closer about stocky ankles and sent murmurous appeals to their patron saints, and senoritas squealed in trepidation that was at least half sincere. It was a very big bear, and she truly looked very fierce and as if she would think nothing of climbing the adobe wall and devouring a whole front seat full of fluttering femininity! Rosa screamed and was immediately reassured, when Teresita reminded her that those fierce gringos across the corral had many guns.)
The bear did not give more than one look of hatred at the flutter above. Loose-skinned and loose-jointed she shambled across the corral; lifted her pointed nose to sniff disgustedly the air tainted with the odor of enemies whom she could not reach with her huge paws, and went on. Clear around the corral she walked, her great, hand-like feet falling as silently as the leaf shadows that splashed one whole corner and danced all over her back when she passed that way; back to the pen where her two cubs whimpered against the bars, and watched her wishfully with pert little tiltings of their heads. (Teresita was confiding to Rosa, beside her, that they would each have a cub for a pet when the mother bear was killed).