Valencia and Pancho and one other were straining to shift the gate of another pen. It was awkward, since they must work from the top; for the adobe corral was as the jaws of a lion while the bear circled watchfully there, and the pen they were striving to open was no safer, with the big, black bull rolling bloodshot eyes at them from below. He had been teased with clods of dirt and small stones flung at him. He had shaken the very posts in their sockets with the impact of his huge body while he tried to reach his tormentors, until they desisted in the fear that he would break his horns off in his rage and so would cheat them of the sight of the good, red blood of the she-bear. Now he was in a fine, fighting mood, and he had both horns with which to fight. From his muzzle dribbled the froth of his anger, as he stiffened his great neck and rumbled a challenge to all the world. Twice, when the gate moved an inch or two and creaked with straining, he came at it so viciously that it jammed again; indeed, it was the batterings of the bull that had made it so hard to open.
Valencia, catching a timbered crosspiece, gave it a lift and a heave. The gate came suddenly free and slid back as they strained at the crosspiece. The bull, from the far side of the pen where he had backed for another rush, shot clear through the opening and half-way across the adobe corral before he realized that he was free.
The bear, at pause in her circlings while she snuffed at the bars that now separated her from her cubs, whirled and lifted herself awkwardly upon her haunches, her narrow head thrust forward sinisterly as she faced this fresh annoyance. Midway, the bull stopped with two or three stiff-legged jumps and glared at her, a little chagrined, perhaps, at the sudden transformation from human foe to this grizzled hill-giant whom instinct had taught him to fear. In his calf-hood he had fled many times before the menace of grizzly, and perhaps he remembered. At any rate he stiffened his forelegs, stopped short, and glared.
Up above, the breaths that had been held came in a shout together. Everyone who saw the pause yelled to the bull to go on and prove his courage. And the bull, when the first shock of surprise and distaste had passed, backed ominously, head lowered, tail switching in spasmodic jerks from side to side. The bear stood a little straighter in her defiance; her head went forward an inch; beyond that she did not move, for her tactics were not to rush but to wait, and to put every ounce of her terrible strength into the meeting.
The neck of the bull swelled and curved, his eyeballs showed glassy. His back humped; like a bowlder hurled down a mountain slope he made his rush, and nothing could swerve him.
The bear might have dodged, and sent him crashing against the wall. Men hoped that she would, and so prolong the excitement. But she did not. She stood there and waited, her forepaws outspread as if for an embrace.
Like a bullet sent true to the target, the head of the bull met the gaunt, ungainly, gray shape; met and went down, the tip of one sharp horn showing in the rough hair of her back, her body collapsing limply across the neck she had broken with one tremendous side-blow as he struck. A moment she struggled and clawed futilely to free herself, then lay as quiet as the bull himself. And so that spectacle ended swiftly and suddenly.
In the reaction which followed that ten-seconds' suspense, men grumbled because it had ended so soon. But, upon second thoughts, its very brevity brought the duel just that much closer, and so they heaved great sighs of relaxation and began craning and looking for the two to enter who would fight to the death with riatas.
Instead, entered the gringo whom Don Andres had foolishly chosen for majordomo, and stood in the middle of the corral, quietly waiting while the vaqueros with their horses and riatas dragged away the carcasses of the bull and the bear.
When the main gate slammed shut behind them Dade lifted his eyes to that side of the corral where the Californians were massed clannishly together, and raised his hands for silence; got it by degrees, as a clamoring breaker subsides and dwindles to little, whispering ripple sounds; and straightway began in the sonorous melody of the Castilian tongue which had been brought, pure and undefiled, from Spain and had not yet been greatly corrupted into the dialect spoken to-day among the descendants and called Spanish.
"Senors, and Senoras" (so he began), "the hour is now midday, and there are many who have come far and are wearied. In the orchard you will find refreshment for all; and your host, Don Andres Picardo, desires me to say for him that he will be greatly honored if you will consider that all things are yours to be used for your comfort and pleasure.
"In two hours, further sports will take place, in the open beyond this corral, so that the seats which you now occupy will serve also to give a fair view of the field. There will be riding contests, free for all caballeros to enter who so desire, and the prize will be a beautiful silver-trimmed bridle that may be seen at the saddle house. After the riding, there will be a contest in the lassoing and tying down of wild steers, for which a prize of a silver hatband and spurs will be given by Don Andres Picardo, your host. Also there will be the riding of bulls; and the prize for the most skillful rider will be a silver-mounted quirto of beautiful design.
"Immediately after these various contests"—Dade could see the tensing of interest among his listeners then—"there will be a contest with riatas between Don Jose Pacheco and Senor Jack Allen, an Americano vaquero from Texas. As the prize for this contest, Don Andres offers Solano, a gelding, four years of age and unbroken. But Don Andres makes this condition: that the winner shall lasso his prize in this corral, and ride him before you all. If he should chance to be thrown, then the prize shall be forfeited to the other contestant, who will also be required to ride the horse before you all. If he also shall fail to ride the caballo, then will the horse revert to Don Andres, who will keep him for his own saddle horse!" He waited while the applause at this sly bit of humor gradually diminished into the occasional pistol-popping of enthusiastic palms, and gestured for silence that he might speak again.
"I am also instructed to inform you that not alone for the prize which Don Andres offers will the contest be fought. I am requested to announce that the Texas vaquero, Senor Jack Allen, hereby publicly challenges Don Jose Pacheco to contest for the gold medal which now rests in the possession of Don Jose. Senors and Senoras, I thank you for attending so graciously to my words, and I wish to ask for continued attention while I announce the sports to these Americanos who do not understand the Spanish, and who are also the guests of Don Andres Picardo, your host."
He bowed low before them, turned and told Bill Wilson's solemnly attentive crowd what was to take place after the feast. Not so elaborate; terse, that he might not try the politeness of that other crowd too far. And when he was done he stopped himself on the verge of saying more, reconsidered and, trusting to the fact that scarce a Spaniard there spoke English, added a warning.
"I hope you all realize," he said, "that we're anxious to have everything go off peaceably. We look to you men to see that, whatever may happen, there shall be no disturbance. Such things are easier started than stopped; and, just as a hint of what will do the most to keep the peace, I want to announce that the water on this rancho can't be beat, and can safely be used for drinking purposes!"
"Water goes, m' son, or I'll know the reason why," called Bill Wilson, and the palms of his crowd clapped vigorous assent.
"That thar's the sensiblest thing you've said, so fur," approved Jerry Simpson, beside Bill. "Me an' the twins'll stand guard, if necessary, and see't that thar hint is took." Whereat Bill Wilson clapped him on the shoulder approvingly.
There was the hum of confusion while the hungry sought the barbecue pits. Dade, his face settled into gloomy foreboding in spite of certain heartening circumstances, went slowly away to his room; where Jack, refusing to take any interest in the sports, lay sprawled upon the bed with a cigarette gone cold between his lips and his eyes fixed hardly upon the ceiling.
Dade gave him a look to measure the degree of his unapproachable mood, sighed wearily and flung his silver-spangled sombrero petulantly into a corner.
"Damn!" he said viciously, as if his vocabulary was so inadequate to voice his emotions that the one expletive would do as well as any to cover his meaning; and sat down heavily in a cushioned chair.
Two minutes, perhaps, of silence, while from sheer force of habit he rolled a cigarette he did not want.
Then Jack moved his head on the pillow so that he could look at Dade.
"I wish you wouldn't take my affairs so to heart," he said, apathy fighting his understanding and his appreciation of a friend like this. "I'd he a whole lot easier in my mind if I didn't know you were worried half to death. And it's no good worrying, Dade. Some' things just come at a fellow, head down; and they have to be met, if we expect to look anybody in the face again." He shifted his head impatiently and stared again at the ceiling. "I'd rather be dead than a coward," he said, speaking low.
"Oh, I know. But—men are just beasts with clothes on their backs. Did you hear them yelling, awhile ago? That was when beasts just as human as they are under the skin, fought and killed each other, so those yelling maniacs could get a thrill or two." He searched his pockets for a match, found one and drew it glumly along the sole of his high-heeled, calfskin boot with its embroidered top of yellow silk on red morocco.
"That's what makes me sick to the stomach," he went on. "They'll sit and watch you two, and they'll gloat over the spectacle—"
A brisk tattoo of knuckles on the oaken door stopped him. Bill came in, grinning with satisfaction over something.
"Say, I've been getting bets laid down five and six to one, on the greaser," he exulted. "You go in and clean him up, Jack, and we'll skin this outfit down to their shirts! All the boys have been taking every bet that was offered; and the old don, I guess, is about the only greaser on the place that ain't bet all he's got. Three-to-one that Jose gets you the third pass, m' son! Now, I don't know a damned thing about this here lasso business, but I took 'em on that, and so did a lot of the boys; and from that up to six-to-one that he'll get you! Want to lay a few bets yourself, you and Dade? That's what I come to find out."
Dade threw out both hands in disgust with the idea; revolted unexpectedly at the thought of being accused of failing to back his friendship with money as well as with every fiber of his loyal being, and turned sourly to Bill. "I've got something like six or eight hundred, in dust," he said. "Lend me enough to make it a thousand, and put 'er up. Take any odds they offer, damn 'em. It'll be blood money, win or lose, but—put 'er up. They can't yowl around that I'm afraid to back him down to my boots."
"That's the kinda talk!" approved Bill. "Make 'em take water all around, the swine! And the boys'll see they cough up afterwards, too. I guess—" He checked himself and went out, still grinning.
THE DUEL OF RIATAS
"They're riding the last bull," announced Dade, coming into the room again where Jack was dressing for the supreme test of the day. "I've got your plan for the ground explained to Valencia and Pancho, and Diego's shining Surry up till you can see your face in him. You ought to be thankful there's somebody on the lookout as faithful as that Injun. I just discovered he hasn't had a bite to eat since last night, because he wouldn't leave Surry long enough to get anything. I hope you're grateful."
"I am," said Jack shortly. "But I've no business to be. Right now I don't believe much in the sloppy whine of gratitude or the limber-backed prayer for mercy. Thankful or not, we get what we get. Fate hands it out to us; and we may as well take it and keep our mouths shut."
"That's the result of cooping yourself in here all day, just thinking and smoking cigarettes," grumbled Dade, himself worried to the point of nervous petulance. If he could have taken his own riata and fought also, he would have been much nearer his usual calm, humorous self.
"Say, I told Jose the rules you suggested, and he agreed to every one like a gentleman. He just came, and Manuel with him leading the horse Jose means to use; a big, black brute with a chest on him like a lion. His crowd stood on their hind legs and yelled themselves purple when they saw him come riding up."
"Well, that's what they've come for—to yell over Jose." Jack held three new neckties to the light, trying to choose the one he would wear.
"Say—" Dade hesitated, looking doubtfully at the other.
"Well? Say it." Jack chose a deep crimson and flung the loop over his head as if he were arraying himself for a ball.
"It may be some advantage to know ... I've watched Jose lasso cattle; he always uses—"
"Step right there!" Jack swung to face him. "I don't want to know how Jose works with his riata. He don't know any of my little kinks, don't you see? I never," he added, after a little silence, "started out with the deliberate intention of killing a man, before. I can't take any advantage, Dade; you know that, just as well as I do." He tried to smile, to soften the rebuff—and he failed.
Dade went up and laid a contrite hand upon his shoulder. "You're a better man than I am, Jack," he asserted humbly. "But it's hell for me to stand back and let you go into this thing alone. I've got piles of confidence in you, old boy—but Jose never got that medal by saying 'pretty, please' and holding out his hand. The best lassoer in California means something. And he means to kill you—"
"If I'll let him," put in Jack, stretching his lips in what passed for a grin.
"I know—but you've been off the range for two years, just about; and you've had a little over three weeks to make up for that lost practice." His eyes caught their two reflections in the glass, and something in Jack's made him smile ruefully. "Kick me good," he advised. "I need it. I've got nerves worse than any old woman. I know you'll come out on top. You always do. But—what'n hell made you say riatas?"
"What'n hell made you brag about me to Manuel?" Jack came back instantly, and was sorry for it when he saw how Dade winced. "Honest, I'm not a bit scared. I know what I can do, and I'm not worrying."
"You are. I never saw you so queer as you have been since I came back. You're no more like yourself than—"
"Well—but it ain't the duel altogether." Jack hesitated. "Say, Dade! Did—er—did Teresita take in all the sports? Bull fight and all?"
"Yes. She and that friend of hers from the Mission were in the front row having the time of their lives. Is that talk true about—" Dade eyed him sharply.
"You go on and get things ready. In five minutes I'll expect to make my little bow to Fate."
Outside in the sunshine, men waited and clamored greedily for more excitement. All day they had waited for the duel, at most merely appeased by the other sports; and now, with Jose actually among them, and with the wine they had drunk to heat their blood and the mob-psychology working its will of them, they were scarce human, but rather a tremendous battle beast personified by dark, eager faces and tongues that wagged continually and with prejudice.
A group of spur-jingling vaqueros, chosen because of their well-broken mounts, rode out in front of the adobe corral and the expectant audience, halted and dispersed to their various stations as directed by Dade, clear-voiced, steady of glance, unemotional, as if he were in charge of a bit of work from habit gone stale.
He might confess to "nerves" in private; in public, there were men who marveled at his calm.
Riatas uncoiled and with each end fastened to a saddle horn, the vaqueros filed out from the corral in two straight lines, with Dade and Valencia to lead the way. When they were placed to Dade's liking, the riatas fenced in a rectangle two hundred yards long, and one-third that distance across. At each riata length, all down the line, a vaquero sat quiet upon his horse, a living fence-post holding the riata fence tight and straight. Down the middle of the arena thus formed easily with definite boundaries, peons were stretching, upon forked stakes, a rope spliced to reach the whole six hundred feet—save that a space of fifty feet was left open at each end so that the combatants might, upon occasion, change sides easily.
Twice Dade paced the width of the area to make sure that the dividing line marked the exact center. When the last stake was driven deep and the rope was knotted securely in place, he rode straight to the corral and pulled up before the judges' stand for his final announcement.
It was a quiet crowd now that he faced. A mass of men and women, tense, silent, ears and eyes strained to miss no smallest detail. He had no need to lift his hand for their attention; he had it—had it to the extent that every man there was unconscious of his neighbor. That roped area was something new, something they had not been expecting. Also the thing Dade told them sounded strange to these hot-blooded ones, who had looked forward to a whirlwind battle, with dust and swirling riatas and no law except the law of chance and superior skill and cunning.
"The two who will fight with riatas for the medalla oro and for the prize which Don Andres offers to the victor," he began, "have agreed upon certain rules which each has promised to observe faithfully, that skill rather than luck may be the chief factor in the fight. These are the rules of the contest:
"None but those two, Don Jose Pacheco and Senor Allen, will be permitted within the square we have marked off for them after the first signal shot is fired. They will toss a coin for first position and will start from opposite ends of the ground. At the signal, which will be a pistol shot, they will mount and ride with the center rope between them. Upon meeting"—he stopped long enough for a quick smile—"they will try what they can do. If both miss, they will coil their riatas and hang them from the horn, and ride on to the end; there they will dismount and wait for the second signal for starting.
"They will repeat these maneuvers until the contest is decided, one way or the other, but at no time will they start before the signal is given.
"Remember, no one else will be permitted inside the line, at any time; also, neither of the contestants may pass the dividing line unless he has the other at his mercy—when—he may cross if he chooses." It cost Dade something, that last sentence, but he said it firmly; repeated the rules more briefly in English and rode out of the square, a vaquero slackening the first riata of the line to leave a space for him to pass. And as he went, there was nothing in his manner to show how ticklish he felt the situation to be.
Only, when he came upon Jack, just riding out from the stable upon Surry, his lips drew tight and thin. But he merely waved his hand and went on to tell Jose that he wanted Manuel to give the signals, for then all would be sure that there would be no unfairness.
He was gone perhaps two minutes; yet when he returned with Manuel glowering beside him, that fenced area was lined four deep with horsemen all around; and so had they segregated themselves instinctively, friend with friend, that the northern side was a mass of bright colors to show that there stood the Spanish caballeros; and opposite them, a more motley showing and yet a more sinister one, stood the Americanos, with Bill Wilson pressed against the rope half-way down the line, and beside him big Jerry Simpson, lounging upon Moll, his black mule.
Instinctively, Dade rode around to them, beckoning Manuel to follow; and placed him between Jerry and Bill; explained that Manuel was to fire the starting signals, and smiled his thanks when Jerry promptly produced one of his "twins" and placed it in Manuel's hands.
"P'int her nose in the air, mister, when you turn her loose," he advised solemnly. "She's loaded fur b'ar!"
"Keep your eyes open," Dade warned Bill Wilson when he turned to ride back; and Bill nodded understandingly. Bill, for that matter, usually did keep his eyes open, and to such purpose that nothing escaped them.
Back at the corral, Dade saw Jack waiting upon Surry in the shade of the adobe wall until the moment came for entering the arena. Near to him, Jose calmed his big, black horse and waited also, cold hauteur the keynote of his whole attitude. Dade waved his hand to them, and they followed him into the empty rectangle. From the crowd came a rustle as of a gust of wind through tree-tops; then they were still again, watching and waiting and listening.
Those for whom they had watched all day at last stood side by side before them; and the picture they made must have pleased the most exacting eye that looked down upon them.
For Jose was all black and silver, from the tasseled, silver cord upon his embroidered sombrero to the great silver rowels of his spurs. Black velvet jacket, black velvet breeches with silver braid glistening in heavy, intricate pattern; black hair, black eyes—and a black frown, withal, and for good reason, perhaps. For, thinking to win a smile from her who had sent the glove and the message, Jose looked towards the nearest and most comfortable seat, where Teresita sat, smiling and resplendent, between her mother and Rosa. He had looked, had Jose, and had seen her smile; but he saw that it was not at him she smiled, but at Jack. It is true, the smile may have been merely scornful; but Jose was in no mood for nice analysis, and the hurt was keen enough because she smiled at all, and it made his mood a savage one.
Jack was all white and red save for the saddle, which was black with silver trimmings; and Surry, milk white from ears to heel, served to complete the picture satisfyingly. Diego must have put an extra crimp in mane and tail, for the waves were beautiful to behold; he had surely polished the hoofs so that they shone; and nature had done the rest, when she made Surry the proud, gentle, high-stepping animal he was. Jack wore breeches and jacket of soft, white leather—and none but Bill Wilson knew what they had cost in time, trouble, and money. A red, silk sash was knotted about his middle; the flaming, crimson tie fluttered under his chin; and he was bareheaded, so that his coppery hair lifted from his untanned forehead in the breeze, and made many a senorita's pulse quicken admiringly. For Jack, think what you will of him otherwise, was extremely good to look upon.
"Heads for Don Jose!" A Mexican dollar, spun high in air from Dade's fingers, glittered and fell straight. Three heads bent to see which side came uppermost, and thousands of necks craned futilely.
"Don Jose will choose his starting-point," Dade called out. "But first the two will lead their horses over the ground, so that they may make sure that there are no holes or stones to trip them."
Even in that preliminary, they showed how differently two persons will go about doing the same thing. Jose, trailing immense, silver spur-rowels, walked with the bridle reins looped over his arm, his eyes examining critically every foot of the ground as he passed.
Jack, loosening his riata as he dismounted, caught the loop over the high horn and let the rope drop to the ground. He wore no spurs; and as for Surry, he had no bridle and bit, but a hackamore instead.
Jack threw the reins over the neck of the horse. "Come, old fellow," he said, quite as if he were speaking to a person, and started off. And Surry, his neck arched, his ears perked knowingly, stepped out after him with that peculiar, springy gait that speaks eloquently of perfect muscles and a body fairly vibrating with energy; the riata trailed after him, every little tendency towards a kink taken out of it.
"Dios! What a caballo is that white one!" Dade heard a Salinas man exclaim, and flushed at the praise.
Back they came, Jack and Surry, with Jack ten feet in advance of the horse; for Jose had chosen to remain at the southern end, with the sun at his left shoulder. Jack, for all his eagerness to begin, found time to shake hands with Bill and say a word to some others as he passed—and those eyes up there that watched did not miss one single movement.
"Look, you! The gringo is telling his friends adios while he may!" some one shouted loudly from across the arena; and a great laugh roared from the throats that were dark, and handclapping at the witticism made the speaker a self-conscious caballero indeed.
At the corral, which was his starting-point, Jack took up the dragging riata, and with his handkerchief wiped off the dust while he coiled it again; hung it over the saddle horn and waited for the signal.
He was scowling now at certain remarks that came to his ears from the seats, with titters and chuckles to point their wit. But he sent a cheering eye-signal to Dade, whose face was strained and noticeably white under the tan.
Half-way down the line, among the Americans, there was a little stir, and then a pistol barked with that loud crash which black powder makes. Jack, on the instant when the smoke curled up in a little, balloon-like puff, turned and leaped into the saddle. The duel of riatas was begun.
FOR LOVE AND A MEDAL
Down the roped lane thundered Jose, whirling his riata over his head till the loop had taken full twenty of the sixty feet of rawhide.
Galloping to meet him, Jack gave his rope a forward, downward fling and formed a little loop—a loop not one-third the size of Jose's—and held it dangling beside Surry's shoulder. So, at the very start, they showed themselves different in method, even though they might be the same in skill.
They met, with fifteen feet between them as they flashed past. Jose flung out his lifted hand. The loop hissed and shot straight for Jack's head.
Jack flung out his little loop, struck the big one fairly, and threw it aside. Even so, the end might have caught him, but for the lengthening lunge which Surry made in mid-air. The loop flecked Surry's crinkled tail and he fled on to the far end and stopped in two short, stiff-legged jumps.
As Jack coiled his riata and slid off he heard the caballeros yelling praise of Jose. But he did not mind that in the least. In that one throw he had learned Jose's method; the big loop, the overhead swirl—direct, bullet-swift, deadly in its aim. He knew now what Dade had wanted to tell him—what it was vital that he should know. And—he hugged the thought—Jose did not know his method; not yet.
A shot, and he was off again with his little loop. Jose, like a great, black bird, flew towards him with the big loop. As they neared he saw Jose's teeth show in the smile of hate. He waited, his little loop ready for the fling should his chance come.
Jose was over-eager. The great, rawhide hoop whistled and shot down aslant like the swoop of a nighthawk. Surry's eye was upon it unwinkingly. He saw where the next leap would bring him within its terrible grip, and he made that leap to one side instead, so that the rawhide thudded into the dust alongside his nose. He swerved again lest Jose in jerking it up should catch his feet, and went on with an exultant toss of his white head. It was the game he knew—the game Diego had played with him many times, to the discomfiture of the peon.
"He is a devil—that white caballo!" cried a chagrined voice from among the vaqueros crowding the ropes so that they bulged inward.
"Hah! devil or no, they will go down, those two white ones! Saw you the look of Jose as he passed? He has been playing with them for the sport of the people. Look you! I have gold on that third throw. The next time—it is as Jose chooses—"
The bark of the pistol cut short the boastings of that vaquero. This was the third pass, and much Spanish gold would be lost upon that throw if Jose missed.
"Three to one, m' son," bawled Bill Wilson remindingly, as Jack loped past with his little loop hanging beside him, ready but scarcely seeming so. Jose was coming swiftly, the big horse lunging against the Spanish bit, his knees flung high with every jump he made, like a deer leaping through brush. And there was the great, rawhide loop singing its battle-song over his head, with the soft who-oo-oo before he released it for the flight.
He aimed true—but Surry had also a nice eye for distance. He did not swerve; he simply stiffened every muscle and stopped short. Even as he did so the black horse plunged past; and Jack, lifting his hand, whirled his loop swiftly once to open it, and gave it a backward fling.
Straight past his shoulder it shot, whimpering, following, reaching—the force of the fling carrying it far, far ... Jose heard it whining behind him, glanced quickly, thought to beat it to the end of its leash. He leaned far over—farther, so that his cheek touched the flying black mane of his horse. He dug deep with his spurs—but he dug too late.
The little loop narrowed—it had reached as far as sixty feet of rawhide could reach and have any loop at all. It sank, and caught the outflung head of the black horse; slid back swiftly and caught Jose as the horse lunged and swung short around; tightened and pressed Jose's cheek hard against the black mane as the rawhide drew tight across the back of his neck.
The black horse plunged and tried to back away; the white one stiffened against the pull of the rope. Between the two of them, they came near finishing Jose once for all. And from the side where stood the white men came the vicious sound of a pistol shot.
"Slack, Surry!" Jack, on the ground, glimpsed the purpling face of his foe. "Slack, you devil!"
Near sixty feet he had to run—and Jose was strangling before his eyes; strangling, because Surry's instant obedience was offset by Jose's horse, who, facing the other at the first jerk of the riata, backed involuntarily with the pull of the pinioned reins. The Spanish bit was cutting his mouth cruelly, and Jose's frenzied clawing could not ease the cruel strain upon either of them.
A few terrible seconds, and then Jack overtook them, eaught the horse by the bridle, and stopped him; and the blood which the cruel bit had brought when the spade cut deep, stained Jack's white clothes red where it fell.
"Slack, Surry! Come on!" he cried, his voice harsh with the stress of that moment. And when the rawhide hung loose between the two horses he freed Jose of the deadly noose, and saw where it had burnt raw the skin of his neck on the side where it touched. A snaky, six-strand riata can be a rather terrible weapon, he decided, while he loosed it and flung it from him.
Jose, for the first time getting breath enough to gasp, tried to straighten himself in the saddle; lurched, and would have gone off on his head if Jack had not put up a hand to steady him. So he led him, a shaken, gasping, disarmed antagonist, across the little space that separated them from where Don Andres and four other Spanish gentlemen sat before the middle gate of the corral.
"Bravo!" cried a sweet, girl voice; and a rose, blood-red and heavy with perfume, fell at Jack's feet. He gave it one cold glance and let it lie. In another moment the black horse crushed it heedlessly beneath his hoof, as Jack turned to the judges.
"Senors, I bring you Don Jose Pacheco."
So suddenly had the contest ended that those riders who helped to form the riata fence stood still in their places, as if another round had yet to be fought. Beyond the pistol shot and the girl voice crying well done, the audience was quiet, waiting.
Then Jose, sitting spent upon his horse, lifted a hand that shook weakly. His fingers fumbled at his breast, and he held out the shining medal of gold—the medal with diamonds prisoning the sunlight so that the trinket flashed in his hand.
"Senor," he said huskily, "the medalla—it is yours."
Jack looked at him; looked at the bent faces of the frowning judges; looked up at Teresita, watching the two with red lips parted and breath coming quickly; looked again queerly at Jose, gasping still, and holding out to him the medalla oro. Jack did a good deal of thinking in a very short space of time.
"I don't want your medal," he said. "Let some Californian fight you for it, if he likes. That is not for a gringo."
Perhaps there was a shade of the theatrical element in his speech and his manner, but he was perfectly innocent of any such intention; and the people before him were nothing if not dramatic. He got his response in the bravos and the applause that followed the silence of sheer amazement. "Gracias!" they cried, in their impulsive appreciation of his generosity.
"The horse which you offered for a prize, Don Andres, I will claim," Jack went on, when he could be heard—and he did not wait long, for short-lived indeed is the applause given to an alien. "And I will ride him as soon as you desire."
"Yes! Let us see him ride that caballo!" cried the fickle mass of humanity. "By a trick of chance he won the duelo, and the medalla he refused because he knows it was not won fairly. Where is that yellow caballo which no man has ridden? Let him show us what he can do with that yellow one!"
Dade, pushing his way exultantly toward him, saw the blaze of anger at their fickleness leap into Jack's eyes.
"Si, I will show you!" he called out. "It is well that you should see some horsemanship! Bring the yellow caballo, then. Truly, I will show you what I can do."
"Come, Surry," called Dade, and the white horse walked up to him and nibbled playfully his bearskin chaparejos. "Solano's in the little corral, off this big one. I'll bring your saddle—"
"I don't want any saddle. I'm going to ride him bareback, with a rope over his nose. Let me have your spurs, will you? Did you hear them say I won the duel with luck? I'll show these greasers what a gringo can do!" He spoke in Spanish, to show his contempt of their opinion of him, and he curled his lip at the jibes they began to fling down at him; the jibes and the taunts—and vague threats as well, when those who had wagered much upon the duelo began to reckon mentally their losings.
In the adobe corral he stood with his riata coiled in his hand and Dade's spurs upon his heels, and waited until Solano, with a fling of heels into the air, rushed in from the pen where the big bull had waited until he was let out to fight the grizzly.
"Bareback he says he will ride that son of Satanas!" jeered a wine-roughened voice. "Boaster that he is, look you how he stands! He is afraid even to lasso that yellow one!"
Jack was indeed deliberate in his movements. He stood still while the horse circled him twice with head and tail held high. When Solano brought up with a flourish on the far side of the corral, Jack turned to Dade and Valencia standing guard at the main gate, their horses barring the opening.
"See that it's kept clear out in front," he told them. "I'll come out a-flying when I do come, most likely."
Whereat those who heard him laughed derisively. "Never to the gate will you ride him, gringo—even so you touch his back! Not twice will the devil give you luck," they yelled, while they scrambled for the choicest positions.
Jack, standing in the center quietly, smiled at them, and gave the flip downward and forward that formed the little loop to which he seemed so partial. He tossed that loop upward, straight over his head; a careless little toss, it looked to those who watched. His hand began to rotate upon his supple wrist joint—and like a live corkscrew the rawhide loop went up, and up, and up, and grew larger while it climbed.
Solano snorted; and the noise was like a gun in the dead silence while those thousands watched this miracle of a rawhide riata that apparently climbed of its own accord into the air.
The loop, a good ten feet in diameter, swirled horizontally over his head. The coil in his hand was paid out until there was barely enough to give him power over the rest. His hand gave a quick motion sidewise, and the loop dropped true, and settled over the head of Solano.
Jack flung a foot backward and braced himself for the pull, the riata drawn across one thigh in the "hip-hold" which cowboys use to-day when they rope from the ground. Solano gave one frightened lunge and brought up trembling with surprise.
That he knew nothing of the feel of a rope worked now to Jack's advantage, for sheer astonishment held the horse quiet. A flip, and the riata curled in a half-hitch over Solano's nose; and Jack was edging slowly towards him, his hands moving along the taut riata like a sailor climbing a rope.
Solano backed, shook his head futilely, snorted, and rolled his eyes—mere frills of resentment that formed no real opposition to Jack's purpose. Five minutes of maneuvering to get close, and Jack had twisted his fingers in the taffy-colored mane; he went up, and landed fairly in the middle of Solano's rounded back and began swiftly coiling the trailing riata.
"Get outa the way, there!" he yelled, and raked the big spurs backward when Solano's forefeet struck the ground after going high in air. Like a bullet they went out of that corral and across the open space where the duel had been fought, with Dade and Valencia spurring desperately after.
It took a long ten minutes to bring Solano back, chafing, but owning Jack's mastery—for the time being, at least. He returned to a sullen audience, save where the Americans cheered him from their side of the corral.
"He is a devil—that blue-eyed one!" the natives were saying grudgingly to one another; but they were stubborn and would not cheer. "Saw you ever a riata thrown as he threw it? Not Jose Pacheco himself ever did so impossible a thing; truly the devil is in that gringo." So they muttered amongst themselves when he came back to the corral and slipped, laughing, from Solano's sweat-roughened back.
"You can have your Surry!" he cried boastfully to Dade, who was the first to reach him. "Give me a month to school him, and this yellow horse will be mighty near as good as your white one. I'd rather have him than forty gold medals!"
"Senor,"—it was Jose, his neck wrapped in a white handkerchief, coming forward from where he had sat with Don Andres—"Senor, I am sorry that I did not kill you; but yet I admire your skill, and I wish to thank you for your generosity; the medalla is not mine, even though you refuse it. Since I have found one better than I, Don Andres shall keep the medalla until I or some other caballero has won it fairly. For my life, which you also refused to take, I—cannot thank you."
Jack looked at him intently. "You will thank me," he said grimly, "later on."
Jose's face went white. "Senor, you do not mean—"
"I do mean—just that."
"But, Senor—" There are times when pride drops away from the proudest man and leaves him weak to the very core of him; weak and humbled beyond words.
Big Jerry Simpson saved that situation from becoming intolerable. With Moll's great ears flopping solemnly to herald his approach, Jerry rode up, perfectly aware that he brought a murmur of curiosity from those who saw his coming.
For Jerry was leading Manuel by the ear; Manuel with his hands tied behind him with Jerry's red bandanna; Manuel with his lips drawn away from his teeth in the desire to kill, and his eyes sullen with the impotence of that desire.
"Sa-ay," drawled Jerry, when he came up to the little group, "what d'ye want done with this here greaser that fired on Jack? Some of the fellers over there wanted to take him out and hang him, but I kinda hated to draw attention away from Jack's p'formance—which was right interesting. Bill Wilson, he reckoned I better fetch him over here and ask you fellers about it; Bill says this mob of greasers might make a fuss if the agony's piled on too thick, but whatever you say will be did." With his unoccupied hand he helped himself to a generous chew of tobacco, and spat gravely into the dust.
"Fer as I'm concerned," he drawled lazily, "I'm willin' to help string him up. He done as dirty a trick as ever I seen, and he done it deliberate. I had m' eye peeled fer him all the time, and I seen he wasn't goin' to stand back and let Jack git the best of that greaser if he could help it. He was cunnin'—but shucks! I see all along why he kept that gun p'inted out front—"
"Turn him loose," said Dade suddenly, interrupting him. "We don't want to start any trouble, Jerry. He may need hanging, but we can't afford to give him what he deserves. It's a ticklish crowd, right now; they've lost a lot on the duel, and they've drunk enough wine to swim a mule. Turn him loose. I mean it," he added, when he caught the incipient rebellion in Jerry's weather-beaten face. "I'm bossing things here to-day. He didn't hit anybody, and I'm beginning to think we can get through the day without any real trouble, if we go easy."
"Wa-al—" Jerry scratched his stubbly jaw reflectively with his free hand, and looked down at his captive. "I'll give him a derned good wallopin', then, just to learn him manners. I've been wantin' to lick him since yesterday mornin' when he tried to drive off Bawley and Lay-fayette and William Penn. I lost two hours off'n my work, argyin' with him. I'll take that outa his hide, right now."
He induced Moll to turn around, and led Manuel away from the presence of the women lest they should be shocked at his deed; and on the cool side of the farthest shed he did indeed give Manuel a "derned good walloping." After which he took a fresh chew of tobacco, lounged over to where Moll waited and switched desultorily at the flies, mounted, and went placidly home to his Mary.
* * * * *
Bill Wilson, having collected their winnings and his own, sought Dade and Jack, where they were lying under the shade of a sycamore just beyond the rim of the crowd chattering shrilly of the later events. With a grunt of relief to be rid of the buzzing, Bill flung himself down beside them and plucked a cigar from an inner pocket.
"Say," he began, after he had bitten off the end of the cigar and had moistened the whole with his tongue. "Them greasers sure do hate to come forward with their losings! Some bets I never will be able to collect; but I got a lot—enough to pay for the trouble of coming down." He rolled over upon his back and lay smoking and looking up into the mottled branches of the tree; thought of something, and lifted himself to an elbow so that he faced Jack.
"Sa-ay, I thought you said you was going to kill that greaser," he challenged quizzically.
Jack shrugged his shoulders, took two long draws on his cigarette, and blew one of his pet smoke-rings. "I did." He moistened his lips and blew another ring. "At least, I killed the biggest part of him—and that's his pride."
Bill grunted, lay down again, and stared up at the wide-pronged sycamore leaves. "Darn my oldest sister's cat's eyes if I ever seen anything like it!" he exploded suddenly, and closed his eyes in a vast content.
From the barbecue pits there came an appetizing odor of roasting beef; high-keyed voices flung good-humored taunts, and once they heard a great shout of laughter surge through the crowd gathered there. From the great platform built under a group of live oaks near the patio they heard the resonant plunk-plunk-plunk of a harp making ready for the dance, and the shrill laughter of slim senoritas hovering there. Down the slope before the three the shadows stretched longer and longer. A violin twanged in the tuning, the harp-strings crooning the key.
"You fellows are going to dance, ain't yuh?" Bill inquired lazily, when his cigar was half gone to ashes and smoke. "Jack, here, can get pardners enough to keep him going fer a week—judging by the eyes them Spanish girls have been making at him since the duel and the horse-breaking.
"Say! How about that sassy-eyed Picardo girl? I ain't seen you and her in speaking distance all day; and the way you was buzzing around her when I was down here before—"
"Say, Jack," Dade interrupted, diplomacy winning against politeness, "I never dreamed you'd have the nerve to try that fancy corkscrew throw of yours before all that crowd. Why, after two years to get out of practice, you took an awful chance of making a fool of yourself! Y'see, Bill," he explained with a deliberate garrulity, "that throw he made when he caught the horse was the finest bit of rope-work that's been done to-day. I don't believe there's another man in the crowd that could do it; and the chances are they never saw it done before, even! I know I never saw but one man beside Jack that could do it. Jack was always at it, when we happened to be laying around with nothing to do, and I know he had to keep his hand in, or he'd make a fizzle of it. Of course," he conceded, "you didn't miss—but if you had—Wow!" He shook his head at the bare possibility.
Jack grinned at him. "I'm not saying how much moonlight I used up, practicing out in the orchard when everybody else was asleep. I reckon I've made that corkscrew five thousand times in the last three weeks!"
"Where you belong," bantered Dade, "is on the stage. You do love to create a sensation, better than any one I ever—"
"Senors—" Diego came hurriedly out of the shadows behind them. "The patron begs that you will honor his table by dining with him to-night. In one little half-hour will he hope to see you; and Don Jose Pacheco will also be happy to meet the senors, if it is the pleasure of the senors to meet him and dine in his company. The patron," added Diego, with the faintest suspicion of a twinkle in his pensive black eyes, "desires also that I shall extend to you the deep regret of the senora and the senorita because it will be impossible for them to be present."
The three looked at one another, and in Bill's eyes dawned slowly the light of understanding.
"Tell the patron we are honored by the invitation, and that it gives us much pleasure to accept," Dade replied for the three of them, after a moment spent in swift, mental measuring of the situation. "Jack, you've got to get them bloody clothes off, and some decent ones on. Come on, Bill; half an hour ain't any too much time to get ready in."
Half-way to the house they walked without saying a word. Then Dade, walking between the two, suddenly clapped a hand down upon the shoulder of each.
"Say, I could holler my head off!" he exulted. "I'm going to quit worrying about anything, after this; the nights I've laid awake and worried myself purple over this darned fiesta—or the duel, rather! And things are turning out smooth as a man could ask.
"Jack, I'm proud to death of you, and that's a fact. With that temper of yours, I kinda looked for you to get this whole outfit down on you; but the way you acted, I don't believe there's a man here, except Manuel, that's got any real grudge against you, even if they did lose a lot of money on the fight. And it's all the way you behaved, old boy—like a prince! Just—like a—blamed prince!"
"Oh, I don't know—Jose acted pretty white, himself. You've got to admit that it's Jose that took the fight out of the crowd. I'm glad—" He did not finish the sentence, and they were considerate enough not to insist that he should.
* * * * *
Warm sunlight, and bonfires fallen to cheerless, charred embers and ashes gone gray; warm sunlight, and eyes grown heavy with the weariness of surfeited pleasure. Bullock carts creaked again, their squealing growing gradually fainter as the fat-jowled senoras lurched home to the monotony of life, while the senoritas drowsed and dreamed, and smiled in their dreaming.
At the corrals, red-lidded caballeros cursed irritably the horses they saddled. In the patio Don Andres gave dignified adieu to the guests that still lingered. The harp was shrouded and dumb upon the platform, the oaken floor polished and dark with the night-long slide of slippered feet. The fiesta was slipping out of the present into the past, where it would live still under the rose-lights of memory.
There was a scurry of little feet in the rose-garden. A door slammed somewhere and hushed the sound of sobbing. A senorita—a young and lovely senorita who had all her life been given her way—fled to her room in a great rage, because for once her smiles had not thawed the ice which her anger had frozen.
The senorita flung something upon the floor and trampled it with her little slipper-heels; a rose, blood-red and withered, yet heavy with perfume still; a rose, twin to the one upon which the black horse of Jose had set his foot in the arena. A note she tore in little bits, with fingers that tingled still from the slap she had given to Diego, who had brought it. She flung the fragments from her, and the writing was fine and feminine in every curve—her own, if you wish to know; the note she had sent, twenty-four hours before, to her blue-eyed one whom she had decided to forgive.
"Santa Maria!" she gasped, and gritted her teeth afterwards. "This, then, is what he meant—that insolent one! 'After the fiesta will I send the answer'—so he told that simpering maid who took my letter and the rose. And the answer, then, is my rose and my letter returned, and no word else. Madre de Dios! That he should flout me thus! Now will I tell Jose to kill him—and kill him quickly. For that blue-eyed gringo I hate!" Then she flung herself across her bed and wept.
Let the tender-hearted be reassured. The senorita slid from sobbing into slumber, and her dreams were pleasant, so that she woke smiling. That night she sang a love-song to Jose, behind the passion vines; and her eyes were soft; and when young Don Jose pulled her fingers from the guitar strings and kissed them many times, her only rebuke was such a pursing of lips that they were kissed also for their mutiny.
After awhile the senorita sang again, while Jose, his neck held a little to one side because of his hurt, watched her worshipfully, and forgot how much he had suffered because of her. She was seventeen, you see, and she was lovely to look upon; and as for a heart—perhaps she would develop one later.
The sun was sliding past the zenith when Jack yawned himself awake. He lay frowning at the ceiling as if he were trying to remember something, sat up when recollection came, and discovered that Dade was already up and getting into his jacket.
"Dade, let's go back to the mine," he suggested abruptly, reaching for his boots. "You aren't crazy about this job here, are you? I know you didn't want to take it, at first."
"And I know you bullied me into it," Dade retorted, with some acrimony. He had danced until his feet burned with fatigue, and there was the reaction from a month of worry to roughen his mood. Also, he had yet to digest the amazing fact that the sight of Teresita had not hurt him so very much—not one quarter as much as he had expected it would do. Now, here was Jack proposing to leave, just when staying would be rather agreeable!
"Well—but times have changed, since then. I'm ready to go." Jack pulled on a boot and stamped his foot snugly into it. "What's more, I'm going!"
"You'll eat, first, won't you?"
Jack passed over the sarcasm. "No, sir, I won't. I'm not going to swallow another mouthful on this ranch. I held myself down till that damned fiesta was over, because I didn't want folks to say I was scared off. But now—I'm going, just as quick as the Lord'll let me get a saddle on that yellow mustang."
"Why, I nothing! I'm going. If you want to go along, you can; but I won't drag you off by the heels. You can suit yourself." He stamped himself into the other boot, went over and splashed cold water into his eyes and upon his head, shook off the drops that clung to his hair, made a few violent passes with towel and brush, and reached for his sombrero.
"It's a long ways to ride on an empty stomach," Dade reminded him dryly.
"We can stop at Jerry Simpson's and eat. That won't be more than a mile or so out of the way." Jack's hand was on the latch.
"And that yellow horse ain't what you can call trail-broke."
"He will be, by the time I get to the mine!"
Dade threw out both hands in surrender. "Oh, well—you darned donkey, give me time to tell Don Andres good-by, anyway."
Jack's eyes lighted with the smile Dade knew and loved to see. "Dade, they don't make 'em any better than you," he cried, and left the door to try and break a shoulder-blade with the flat of his hand, just to show his appreciation of such friendship. "Bill Wilson has got enough gold that he pulled out of the crowd for us yesterday to grub-stake us for a good long while, and—I can't get out of this valley a minute too soon to suit me," he confessed. "You go on and hunt up Don Andres, while I tackle Solano. I'll wait for you—but don't ask me to stay till after dinner, because I won't do it.
"We don't want to go off without saying good-by to Jerry and his wife, anyway; and we'll beg a meal from the old Turk, and listen to some more yarns about Tige, just to show we're friendly. I'll have Surry saddled, so all you've got to do is make your talk to the don and pack your socks."
Dade grinned and followed him outside. "Good thing I'm used to you," he commented grimly, "or my head would be whirling, right now." Not a word, you will observe, as to whether his own interests would be furthered by this sudden departure; but that was Dade's way. Not a word about the sudden change from last evening, when Jack had eaten at Don Andres' table and had talked amiably with Jose—amiably in spite of the fact that every one of them understood perfectly that the amiability was but the flowers of courtesy strewn over a formal—and perhaps a temporary—truce. But Jose was not a fixture upon the ranch, and the don's friendship for the two seemed unchanged.
Dade did not argue nor did he question. Barring details, he thought he understood why it was that Jack wanted to go—why it was impossible for him to stay. A girl may be only seventeen and as irresponsible as a kitten, but for all that she may play an important part in the making and the marring of a man's most practical plans.
When he returned from the house, Don Andres walked beside him. The two of them reached the corral just as Jack released Solano's foot from the rawhide loop that had held it high while Jack cinched the saddle in place. When Jack saw them he came forward, wiping from his face the beads of perspiration which the tussle had brought there.
"Senor Hunter tells me that you are going away," Don Andres began almost at once. "That you are acting wisely I am truly convinced, Senor Allen, though it irks me to say that it is so. For a little time would all be well, perchance; for as long as your generosity fills the heart of Jose with gratitude, so that no ill will finds room there. But his temper is hot and hasty, as is yours; and with other considerations which one must face—" He held out his hand for farewell.
"Adios, Senor. I am indeed sorry that you must leave us," he said simply. "Under other circumstance I should urge you to remain; but my lips are sealed, as you well know. Adios, amigo mio. I have liked thee well." He gripped Jack's hand warmly, and turned away. Dade he gave a final handclasp, and walked slowly back to the house, his proud old head bowed upon his chest.
Valencia, yawning prodigiously, came forth from the vaqueros' hut and glimpsed them just as Jack was bringing Solano to something like decent behavior before they started down the slope.
"Dios!" cried Valencia, and ran to see what was taking place. For while the taming of a mustang is something which a man may undertake whenever the mood of him impels, the somewhat bulky packages tied behind the high cantles could mean nothing save a journey.
When they told him, he expostulated with tears in his eyes. He had been nursing since yesterday a secret hope that the blue-eyed one would teach him that wonderful trick of making a riata climb upward of its own accord as if it were a live thing. Beyond that he was genuinely distressed to see them go, and even threatened to go with them before he yielded finally to the inevitable—remembering Felice, perhaps, and the emptiness of life without her.
"Senor, should you chance to see that great hombre who whipped Manuel so completely, you would do well to give the warning. Me, I heard from Ronaldo last night that Manuel spoke many threats against that gringo who had beaten him. Carlos also—and I think they mean ill towards the Senor Seem'son. Me, I thought to ride that way to-morrow and give the word of warning."
"We're going there now," said Jack, with some difficulty holding the yellow horse quiet, while he shook hands with Valencia. "Adios, Valencia. If you ever come near our mine, remember that what we have will be yours also."
"Gracias, gracias—adios—" He stood staring regretfully after them when they started erratically down the slope; erratically, because Solano preferred going backward or sidewise, or straight up and down, to going forward. They were not two hundred yards away from the stable when Valencia overtook them, having saddled in haste that he might ride with them for a way.
"That caballo, he needs two to show him the way, Senors," grinned Valencia, to explain his coming. "Me, I shall help to get him started, and we will say adios farther up the valley, unless the senors desire to ride to Senor Seem'son's cabin."
"That's where we're headed for, believe it or not!" laughed Jack, who at that moment was going round and round in a circle. "When he gets so dizzy he can't tell up from down, maybe he'll do as I say about going straight ahead."
Eventually Solano did decide to move forward; and he did so at such a pace that speedily they reached Jerry's claim and galloped furiously up the slope to the cabin.
"Must be asleep," Dade remarked carelessly, when they faced a quiet, straight-hanging bullock hide.
But when a loud hallo brought no sign, even from Tige, he jumped off and went to investigate the silence.
"There ain't a single soul here," he announced, "and that's funny, too. They always leave Tige to watch the place, you know—or they did before I went on rodeo."
"They do yet," said Jack. "Only Mrs. Jerry never goes anywhere. She stays at home to watch their garden. That's it, over there; her 'truck patch,' she calls it."
"Things are all upset here. Get off, Jack, and let's see what's up. I don't like the looks of things, myself." Dade's face was growing sober.
Valencia, on the ground, was helping Jack with Solano. But he turned suddenly and cast an uneasy glance towards the quiet log hut.
"Senors, for these two who live here I am afraid! It is as I told you; that Manuel was speaking threats against the big senor, last night; and he had drunk much wine, so that he walked not steady. And with Carlos and perhaps one or two others—of that I am not sure—he rode away soon after dark. Dolt, that I did not tell thee at the time! But I was dancing much," he confessed, "and the fiesta dance makes drunken the feet, that they must dance—"
"Well, tie up that mustang and never mind." Dade was walking aimlessly about, looking for something—what, he did not know. "There's tracks all around, and—" he disappeared behind the cabin.
In a minute he was calling them, and his tone brought them on the run. "Now, what do you make of that?" he wanted to know, and pointed.
Two fresh mounds of earth, narrow, long—graves, if size and shape meant anything at all. The form of a "T" they made there in the grass; for one was short and extended across, near one end of the larger one.
"What do you make of that?" Dade repeated, much lower than before.
"Senors, evil has been done here. Me, I think—"
"Don't think! Bring that shovel, over there—see it, by the tree?—and dig. There's one way to find out what it means."
Valencia did not want to dig into those mounds, but the voice was that of his majordomo, whom he had for a month obeyed implicitly. He got the shovel and he dug. And since it seemed too bad to make him do all the work, Jack and Dade each took their turn in opening the grave.
And in that grave they found Mrs. Jerry, wrapped in her faded patchwork quilt, her hands folded at peace, her wistful brown eyes closed softly—There was no need to speculate long upon the cause of her death. Her shapeless brown dress was stained dark from throat to waist. Dade, shuddering a little, very gently lifted the hands that were folded; beneath was the hole where the bullet had struck.
"Dios!" said Valencia, in a whisper.
They were three white-faced young men who stood there, abashed before the tragedy they had uncovered. After a little, they filled the grave again and stood back, trying to think the thing out and to think it out calmly. They drew away from the spot, Dade leading.
"We don't need to open the other one," he said. "That holds Tige, of course. I wonder—"
"Let's look around out there in the bushes," Jack suggested. "I can see how the thing must have happened; somebody came and started shooting—and that rifle he called Jemina, and the two pistols—don't you reckon they did some good for themselves?"
"Probably—if Jerry was here."
"Man, he must have been here! Who else—" he tilted his head towards the graves. Surely, no one but Jerry would have buried them so, with Tige lying at the feet of his mistress. And, as Jack presently pointed out, if the shooting had taken place in Jerry's absence, he would certainly have notified them at the ranch. And Jack had a swift mental picture of Jerry galloping furiously up to the patio on one of his mules, brandishing his rifle, while he shouted to all around him the news of this terrible, unbelievable thing that had befallen him.
They did not search long before they found plenty of evidence that Jerry had been there at the time of the trouble. They found Manuel lying on his back, with his beard clotted and stained red, and his black eyes staring dully at the sky. Farther along they came upon Carlos, lying upon his face, with a blood-stained trail behind him in the grass to show how far he had crawled before death overtook him. But they did not find Jerry, look where they would.
In the cabin, where they finally went to search systematically for clews, they found places where the logs had been splintered near the loopholes with bullets from without. A siege it had been, then.
Jack, more familiar with the interior than either of the others because of his frequent visits there with Teresita, missed certain articles; the frying pan, an iron pot, a few dishes, and the bedding, to be exact.
So, finally, they decided that Jerry, having had the worst befall him, had buried his dead, packed a few necessary things upon one of the mules, mounted the other, and had gone—where? There was no telling where, in that big land. Somewhere into the wilderness, they guessed, where he could be alone with the deadly hurt Fate and his enemies had given him.
The oxen, when they went outside, came shambling up the slope to the oak tree where they were wont to spend the night near the prairie schooner that had been their homing place for many a month. But without a doubt the mules were gone; otherwise, Jack insisted, they would be near the oxen, as was their gregarious habit.
"Jerry's gone—pulled out," Jack asserted for the third or fourth time. "And the mules, and—the pup. Where's Chico? I haven't seen or heard anything of him; have you?"
They had not; and they immediately began calling and looking for Chico, who was at that stage of puppyhood that insists upon getting in front of one and then falling down and lying, paws in the air, waiting to be picked up and petted. But Chico did not come lumbering up like an animated black muff, and they could not find his little, dead body.
It occurred to Dade that he might be buried with Tige; and, once the idea was presented to Jack, he could not content himself to leave the place until he knew to a certainty. He would never have admitted it, but there were certain sweet memories which made that particular pup not at all like other black pups. He got the shovel, and he dug in the little grave until he was certain that Tige lay there, and that he was alone.
"Well, he's taken the pup along, then; and that proves to me that Jerry wasn't crazy, or anything like that. He's just pulled out, because he couldn't stand it around here any longer—and I don't blame him. But I wish I knew where; we'd take him up to the mine with us; huh?"
"Yes—but we're about fourteen hours too late to find out where he went. If I'm any judge, these bodies have been dead that long. And if we found him, the chances are he wouldn't go. If I'm any good at guessing poor Jerry's state of mind, right now, he don't want to see or speak to any human being on earth."
"I guess you're right," Jack assented, after a meditative pause. "He just worshiped that poor little woman."
Beyond that, neither of them attempted to put into speech the tragedy; it was beyond the poor words we have thus far coined for our needs, like many another thing that happens in these lives we live. They waited a little while longer, wondering what they could or should do.
Mrs. Jerry lay easily where she had been placed by the man who loved her. The killers had been killed by the same hand that laid her deep, in her faded, patchwork quilt. There seemed nothing further to be done.
But Valencia, when he had ridden a thoughtful half-mile, did think of something.
"Me, I shall give ten pesos of the gold I won yesterday upon the duelo," he said, glancing back at the grim little cabin, "that mass may be said for the repose of the Senora Seem'son's soul. For thus will sleep come easier to me, Senors. And you?"
"I think, Valencia, if I were going to say any prayers, they'd be said for Jerry," Dade told him. "He needs 'em worse than she does."
"Oh, come on, Dade; let's be getting out of this valley!" Jack urged irritably. "And I hope," he added, "I'll never see the place again!"
"But, Senor!" Valencia rode alongside to protest almost tearfully, "The valley, it is not to be blame. Saw you ever a sweeter land than this?" He flung his arm outward to include the whole beautiful expanse of it. "The valley, it is glorious! Am I not right? Blame not the beautiful land, Senor, for the trouble that has come; for trouble will find a man out, though he climb the loneliest mountain peak and hide himself among the rocks there! And the valley—Senors, the valley will hold friends that are true to thee."
Jack flushed at the reproach; flushed and owned himself wrong. "I'll remember the friends," he said. "And I'll forget the things that hurt; I'm a selfish brute—whee-ee! I should say!" He pulled up as short as Solano would let him, and stared from Dade to Valencia with guilty eyes.
"Diego—I forgot that Injun, Dade; and next to you, I believe he's the best friend I've got on earth! I was so wrapped up in my own bruises that I clean overlooked something that I ought to be mighty grateful for. Dade, do you think he'd like to go along to the mine? You know his wife died a few months ago, and he's kind of alone; do you think he'd go?"
"I think the chance to go would look like a ticket to glory," Dade assured him sententiously.
Whereupon Jack dismounted, that he might write a few lines as he had written the note to Bill Wilson, a couple of months before: with a leaf from his memorandum book and a bullet for pencil.
"Give that to Don Andres, will you, Valencia? It's to ask how much is Diego's debt, and to say that I'll pay it if the peon wants to come with me. We'll wait in town until we hear; perhaps Don Andres will let you come up with Diego—that is, if Diego wants to come. You ask him, Valencia."
"He will come, Senor; nothing would give him greater joy. And," he added wishfully, "but for my sweetheart, Senors, I would ask that I might come with you also!"
"You stick to your sweetheart, Valencia—if she's true," Jack advised him somberly. "Now, Dade, I guess we're ready for the long ride to supper. Why don't you kick me for being such a selfish cuss?"
"Maybe because I'm used to you," Dade's lips quirked humorously after the retort. "You're just Jack—and you couldn't be any different, I reckon, if you tried. Well, come along, then. Adios, Valencia."
Once more they shook hands solemnly with the vaquero, who had no smile for the parting.
"Adios, adios," Valencia called lingeringly after them, and held his horse quiet that he might gaze after them until a willow bend hid them finally from his view.