"He say he love me," repeated the girl, in a kind of rapt awe. "He ask me to marry him—he kees me—he hug me—he lift me on ze horse—he ride with me all night—he marry me."
And she exhibited a ring on the third finger of her left hand. Madeline saw that, whatever had been the state of Christine's feeling for Ambrose before this marriage, she loved him now. She had been taken forcibly, but she was won.
After Christine had gone, comforted and betraying her shy eagerness to get back to Ambrose, Madeline was haunted by the look in the girl's eyes, and her words. Assuredly the spell of romance was on this sunny land. For Madeline there was a nameless charm, a nameless thrill combating her sense of the violence and unfitness of Ambrose's wooing. Something, she knew not what, took arms against her intellectual arraignment of the cowboy's method of getting himself a wife. He had said straight out that he loved the girl—he had asked her to marry him—he kissed her—he hugged her—he lifted her upon his horse—he rode away with her through the night—and he married her. In whatever light Madeline reviewed this thing she always came back to her first natural impression; it thrilled her, charmed her. It went against all the precepts of her training; nevertheless, it was somehow splendid and beautiful. She imagined it stripped another artificial scale from her over-sophisticated eyes.
Scarcely had she settled again to the task on her desk when Stillwell's heavy tread across the porch interrupted her. This time when he entered he wore a look that bordered upon the hysterical; it was difficult to tell whether he was trying to suppress grief or glee.
"Miss Majesty, there's another amazin' strange thing sprung on me. Hyars Jim Bell come to see you, an', when I taxed him, sayin' you was tolerable busy, he up an' says he was hungry an' he ain't a-goin' to eat any more bread made in a wash-basin! Says he'll starve first. Says Nels hed the gang over to big bunk an' feasted them on bread you taught him how to make in some new-fangled bucket-machine with a crank. Jim says thet bread beat any cake he ever eat, an' he wants you to show him how to make some. Now, Miss Majesty, as superintendent of this ranch I ought to know what's goin' on. Mebbe Jim is jest a-joshin' me. Mebbe he's gone clean dotty. Mebbe I hev. An' beggin' your pardon, I want to know if there's any truth in what Jim says Nels says."
Whereupon it became necessary for Madeline to stifle her mirth and to inform the sadly perplexed old cattleman that she had received from the East a patent bread-mixer, and in view of the fact that her household women had taken fright at the contrivance, she had essayed to operate it herself. This had turned out to be so simple, so saving of time and energy and flour, so much more cleanly than the old method of mixing dough with the hands, and particularly it had resulted in such good bread, that Madeline had been pleased. Immediately she ordered more of the bread-mixers. One day she had happened upon Nels making biscuit dough in his wash-basin, and she had delicately and considerately introduced to him the idea of her new method. Nels, it appeared, had a great reputation as a bread-maker, and he was proud of it. Moreover, he was skeptical of any clap-trap thing with wheels and cranks. He consented, however, to let her show how the thing worked and to sample some of the bread. To that end she had him come up to the house, where she won him over. Stillwell laughed loud and long.
"Wal, wal, wal!" he exclaimed, at length. "Thet's fine, an' it's powerful funny. Mebbe you don't see how funny? Wal, Nels has jest been lordin' it over the boys about how you showed him, an' now you'll hev to show every last cowboy on the place the same thing. Cowboys are the jealousest kind of fellers. They're all crazy about you, anyway. Take Jim out hyar. Why, thet lazy cowpuncher jest never would make bread. He's notorious fer shirkin' his share of the grub deal. I've knowed Jim to trade off washin' the pots an' pans fer a lonely watch on a rainy night. All he wants is to see you show him the same as Nels is crowin' over. Then he'll crow over his bunkie, Frank Slade, an' then Frank'll get lonely to know all about this wonderful bread-machine. Cowboys are amazin' strange critters, Miss Majesty. An' now thet you've begun with them this way, you'll hev to keep it up. I will say I never seen such a bunch to work. You've sure put heart in them."
"Indeed, Stillwell, I am glad to hear that," replied Madeline. "And I shall be pleased to teach them all. But may I not have them all up here at once—at least those off duty?"
"Wal, I reckon you can't onless you want to hev them scrappin'," rejoined Stillwell, dryly. "What you've got on your hands now, Miss Majesty, is to let 'em come one by one, an' make each cowboy think you're takin' more especial pleasure in showin' him than the feller who came before him. Then mebbe we can go on with cattle-raisin'."
Madeline protested, and Stillwell held inexorably to what he said was wisdom. Several times Madeline had gone against his advice, to her utter discomfiture and rout. She dared not risk it again, and resigned herself gracefully and with subdued merriment to her task. Jim Bell was ushered into the great, light, spotless kitchen, where presently Madeline appeared to put on an apron and roll up her sleeves. She explained the use of the several pieces of aluminum that made up the bread-mixer and fastened the bucket to the table-shelf. Jim's life might have depended upon this lesson, judging from his absorbed manner and his desire to have things explained over and over, especially the turning of the crank. When Madeline had to take Jim's hand three times to show him the simple mechanism and then he did not understand she began to have faint misgivings as to his absolute sincerity. She guessed that as long as she touched Jim's hand he never would understand. Then as she began to measure out flour and milk and lard and salt and yeast she saw with despair that Jim was not looking at the ingredients, was not paying the slightest attention to them. His eyes were covertly upon her.
"Jim, I am not sure about you," said Madeline, severely. "How can you learn to make bread if you do not watch me mix it?"
"I am a-watchin' you," replied Jim, innocently.
Finally Madeline sent the cowboy on his way rejoicing with the bread-mixer under his arm. Next morning, true to Stillwell's prophecy, Frank Slade, Jim's bunkmate, presented himself cheerfully to Madeline and unbosomed himself of a long-deferred and persistent desire to relieve his overworked comrade of some of the house-keeping in their bunk.
"Miss Hammond," said Frank, "Jim's orful kind wantin' to do it all hisself. But he ain't very bright, an' I didn't believe him. You see, I'm from Missouri, an' you'll have to show me."
For a whole week Madeline held clinics where she expounded the scientific method of modern bread-making. She got a good deal of enjoyment out of her lectures. What boys these great hulking fellows were! She saw through their simple ruses. Some of them were grave as deacons; others wore expressions important enough to have fitted the faces of statesmen signing government treaties. These cowboys were children; they needed to be governed; but in order to govern them they had to be humored. A more light-hearted, fun-loving crowd of boys could not have been found. And they were grown men. Stillwell explained that the exuberance of spirits lay in the difference in their fortunes. Twenty-seven cowboys, in relays of nine, worked eight hours a day. That had never been heard of before in the West. Stillwell declared that cowboys from all points of the compass would head their horses toward Her Majesty's Rancho.
VIII. El Capitan
Stillwell's interest in the revolution across the Mexican line had manifestly increased with the news that Gene Stewart had achieved distinction with the rebel forces. Thereafter the old cattleman sent for El Paso and Douglas newspapers, wrote to ranchmen he knew on the big bend of the Rio Grande, and he would talk indefinitely to any one who would listen to him. There was not any possibility of Stillwell's friends at the ranch forgetting his favorite cowboy. Stillwell always prefaced his eulogy with an apologetic statement that Stewart had gone to the bad. Madeline liked to listen to him, though she was not always sure which news was authentic and which imagination.
There appeared to be no doubt, however, that the cowboy had performed some daring feats for the rebels. Madeline found his name mentioned in several of the border papers. When the rebels under Madero stormed and captured the city of Juarez, Stewart did fighting that won him the name of El Capitan. This battle apparently ended the revolution. The capitulation of President Diaz followed shortly, and there was a feeling of relief among ranchers on the border from Texas to California. Nothing more was heard of Gene Stewart until April, when a report reached Stillwell that the cowboy had arrived in El Cajon, evidently hunting trouble. The old cattleman saddled a horse and started post-haste for town. In two days he returned, depressed in spirit. Madeline happened to be present when Stillwell talked to Alfred.
"I got there too late, Al," said the cattleman. "Gene was gone. An' what do you think of this? Danny Mains hed jest left with a couple of burros packed. I couldn't find what way he went, but I'm bettin' he hit the Peloncillo trail."
"Danny will show up some day," replied Alfred. "What did you learn about Stewart? Maybe he left with Danny."
"Not much," said Stillwell, shortly. "Gene's hell-bent fer election! No mountains fer him."
"Well tell us about him."
Stillwell wiped his sweaty brow and squared himself to talk.
"Wal, it's sure amazin' strange about Gene. Its got me locoed. He arrived in El Cajon a week or so ago. He was trained down like as if he'd been ridin' the range all winter. He hed plenty of money—Mex, they said. An' all the Greasers was crazy about him. Called him El Capitan. He got drunk an' went roarin' round fer Pat Hawe. You remember that Greaser who was plugged last October—the night Miss Majesty arrived? Wal, he's daid. He's daid, an' people says thet Pat is a-goin' to lay thet killin' onto Gene. I reckon thet's jest talk, though Pat is mean enough to do it, if he hed the nerve. Anyway, if he was in El Cajon he kept mighty much to hisself. Gene walked up an' down, up an' down, all day an' night, lookin' fer Pat. But he didn't find him. An', of course, he kept gettin' drunker. He jest got plumb bad. He made lots of trouble, but there wasn't no gun-play. Mebbe thet made him sore, so he went an' licked Flo's brother-in-law. Thet wasn't so bad. Jack sure needed a good lickin'. Wal, then Gene met Danny an' tried to get Danny drunk. An' he couldn't! What do you think of that? Danny hedn't been drinkin'—wouldn't touch a drop. I'm sure glad of thet, but it's amazin' strange. Why, Danny was a fish fer red liquor. I guess he an' Gene had some pretty hard words, though I'm not sure about thet. Anyway, Gene went down to the railroad an' he got on an engine, an' he was in the engine when it pulled out. Lord, I hope he doesn't hold up the train! If he gets gay over in Arizona he'll go to the pen at Yuma. An' thet pen is a graveyard fer cowboys. I wired to agents along the railroad to look out fer Stewart, an' to wire back to me if he's located."
"Suppose you do find him, Stillwell, what can you do?" inquired Alfred.
The old man nodded gloomily.
"I straightened him up once. Mebbe I can do it again." Then, brightening somewhat, he turned to Madeline. "I jest hed an idee, Miss Majesty. If I can get him, Gene Steward is the cowboy I want fer my foreman. He can manage this bunch of cow-punchers thet are drivin' me dotty. What's more, since he's fought fer the rebels an' got that name El Capitan, all the Greasers in the country will kneel to him. Now, Miss Majesty, we hevn't got rid of Don Carlos an' his vaqueros yet. To be sure, he sold you his house an' ranch an' stock. But you remember nothin' was put in black and white about when he should get out. An' Don Carlos ain't gettin' out. I don't like the looks of things a little bit. I'll tell you now thet Don Carlos knows somethin' about the cattle I lost, an' thet you've been losin' right along. Thet Greaser is hand an' glove with the rebels. I'm willin' to gamble thet when he does get out he an' his vaqueros will make another one of the bands of guerrillas thet are harassin' the border. This revolution ain't over' yet. It's jest commenced. An' all these gangs of outlaws are goin' to take advantage of it. We'll see some old times, mebbe. Wal, I need Gene Stewart. I need him bad. Will you let me hire him, Miss Majesty, if I can get him straightened up?"
The old cattleman ended huskily.
"Stillwell, by all means find Stewart, and do not wait to straighten him up. Bring him to the ranch," replied Madeline.
Thanking her, Stillwell led his horse away.
"Strange how he loves that cowboy!" murmured Madeline.
"Not so strange, Majesty," replied her brother. "Not when you know. Stewart has been with Stillwell on some hard trips into the desert alone. There's no middle course of feeling between men facing death in the desert. Either they hate each other or love each other. I don't know, but I imagine Stewart did something for Stillwell—saved us life, perhaps. Besides, Stewart's a lovable chap when he's going straight. I hope Stillwell brings him back. We do need him, Majesty. He's a born leader. Once I saw him ride into a bunch of Mexicans whom we suspected of rustling. It was fine to see him. Well, I'm sorry to tell you that we are worried about Don Carlos. Some of his vaqueros came into my yard the other day when I had left Flo alone. She had a bad scare. These vaqueros have been different since Don Carlos sold the ranch. For that matter, I never would have trusted a white woman alone with them. But they are bolder now. Something's in the wind. They've got assurance. They can ride off any night and cross the border."
During the succeeding week Madeline discovered that a good deal of her sympathy for Stillwell in his hunt for the reckless Stewart had insensibly grown to be sympathy for the cowboy. It was rather a paradox, she thought, that opposed to the continual reports of Stewart's wildness as he caroused from town to town were the continual expressions of good will and faith and hope universally given out by those near her at the ranch. Stillwell loved the cowboy; Florence was fond of him; Alfred liked and admired him, pitied him; the cowboys swore their regard for him the more he disgraced himself. The Mexicans called him El Gran Capitan. Madeline's personal opinion of Stewart had not changed in the least since the night it had been formed. But certain attributes of his, not clearly defined in her mind, and the gift of his beautiful horse, his valor with the fighting rebels, and all this strange regard for him, especially that of her brother, made her exceedingly regret the cowboy's present behavior.
Meanwhile Stillwell was so earnest and zealous that one not familiar with the situation would have believed he was trying to find and reclaim his own son. He made several trips to little stations in the valley, and from these he returned with a gloomy face. Madeline got the details from Alfred. Stewart was going from bad to worse—drunk, disorderly, savage, sure to land in the penitentiary. Then came a report that hurried Stillwell off to Rodeo. He returned on the third day, a crushed man. He had been so bitterly hurt that no one, not even Madeline, could get out of him what had happened. He admitted finding Stewart, failing to influence him; and when the old cattleman got so far he turned purple in the face and talked to himself, as if dazed: "But Gene was drunk. He was drunk, or he couldn't hev treated old Bill like thet!"
Madeline was stirred with an anger toward the brutal cowboy that was as strong as her sorrow for the loyal old cattleman. And it was when Stillwell gave up that she resolved to take a hand. The persistent faith of Stillwell, his pathetic excuses in the face of what must have been Stewart's violence, perhaps baseness, actuated her powerfully, gave her new insight into human nature. She honored a faith that remained unshaken. And the strange thought came to her that Stewart must somehow be worthy of such a faith, or he never could have inspired it. Madeline discovered that she wanted to believe that somewhere deep down in the most depraved and sinful wretch upon earth there was some grain of good. She yearned to have the faith in human nature that Stillwell had in Stewart.
She sent Nels, mounted upon his own horse, and leading Majesty, to Rodeo in search of Stewart. Nels had instructions to bring Stewart back to the ranch. In due time Nels returned, leading the roan without a rider.
"Yep, I shore found him," replied Nels, when questioned. "Found him half sobered up. He'd been in a scrap, an' somebody hed put him to sleep, I guess. Wal, when he seen thet roan hoss he let out a yell an' grabbed him round the neck. The hoss knowed him, all right. Then Gene hugged the hoss an' cried—cried like—I never seen no one who cried like he did. I waited awhile, an' was jest goin' to say somethin' to him when he turned on me red-eyed, mad as fire. 'Nels,' he said, 'I care a hell of a lot fer thet boss, an' I liked you pretty well, but if you don't take him away quick I'll shoot you both.' Wal, I lit out. I didn't even git to say howdy to him."
"Nels, you think it useless—any attempt to see him—persuade him?" asked Madeline.
"I shore do, Miss Hammond," replied Nels, gravely. "I've seen a few sun-blinded an' locoed an' snake-poisoned an' skunk-bitten cow-punchers in my day, but Gene Stewart beats 'em all. He's shore runnin' wild fer the divide."
Madeline dismissed Nels, but before he got out of earshot she heard him speak to Stillwell, who awaited him on the porch.
"Bill, put this in your pipe an' smoke it—none of them scraps Gene has hed was over a woman! It used to be thet when he was drank he'd scrap over every pretty Greaser girl he'd run across. Thet's why Pat Hawe thinks Gene plugged the strange vaquero who was with little Bonita thet night last fall. Wal, Gene's scrappin' now jest to git shot up hisself, for some reason thet only God Almighty knows."
Nels's story of how Stewart wept over his horse influenced Madeline powerfully. Her next move was to persuade Alfred to see if he could not do better with this doggedly bent cowboy. Alfred needed only a word of persuasion, for he said he had considered going to Rodeo of his own accord. He went, and returned alone.
"Majesty, I can't explain Stewart's singular actions," said Alfred. "I saw him, talked with him. He knew me, but nothing I said appeared to get to him. He has changed terribly. I fancy his once magnificent strength is breaking. It—it actually hurt me to look at him. I couldn't have fetched him back here—not as he is now. I heard all about him, and if he isn't downright out of his mind he's hell-bent, as Bill says, on getting killed. Some of his escapades are—are not for your ears. Bill did all any man could do for another. We've all done our best for Stewart. If you'd been given a chance perhaps you could have saved him. But it's too late. Put it out of mind now, dear."
Madeline, however, did not forget nor give it up. If she had forgotten or surrendered, she felt that she would have been relinquishing infinitely more than hope to aid one ruined man. But she was at a loss to know what further steps to take. Days passed, and each one brought additional gossip of Stewart's headlong career toward the Yuma penitentiary. For he had crossed the line into Cochise County, Arizona, where sheriffs kept a stricter observance of law. Finally a letter came from a friend of Nels's in Chiricahua saying that Stewart had been hurt in a brawl there. His hurt was not serious, but it would probably keep him quiet long enough to get sober, and this opportunity, Nels's informant said, would be a good one for Stewart's friends to take him home before he got locked up. This epistle inclosed a letter to Stewart from his sister. Evidently, it had been found upon him. It told a story of illness and made an appeal for aid. Nels's friend forwarded this letter without Stewart's knowledge, thinking Stillwell might care to help Stewart's family. Stewart had no money, he said.
The sister's letter found its way to Madeline. She read it, tears in her eyes. It told Madeline much more than its brief story of illness and poverty and wonder why Gene had not written home for so long. It told of motherly love, sisterly love, brotherly love—dear family ties that had not been broken. It spoke of pride in this El Capitan brother who had become famous. It was signed "your loving sister Letty."
Not improbably, Madeline revolved in mind, this letter was one reason for Stewart's headstrong, long-continued abasement. It had been received too late—after he had squandered the money that would have meant so much to mother and sister. Be that as it might, Madeline immediately sent a bank-draft to Stewart's sister with a letter explaining that the money was drawn in advance on Stewart's salary. This done, she impulsively determined to go to Chiricahua herself.
The horseback-rides Madeline had taken to this little Arizona hamlet had tried her endurance to the utmost; but the journey by automobile, except for some rocky bits of road and sandy stretches, was comfortable, and a matter of only a few hours. The big touring-car was still a kind of seventh wonder to the Mexicans and cowboys; not that automobiles were very new and strange, but because this one was such an enormous machine and capable of greater speed than an express-train. The chauffeur who had arrived with the car found his situation among the jealous cowboys somewhat far removed from a bed of roses. He had been induced to remain long enough to teach the operating and mechanical technique of the car. And choice fell upon Link Stevens, for the simple reason that of all the cowboys he was the only one with any knack for mechanics. Now Link had been a hard-riding, hard-driving cowboy, and that winter he had sustained an injury to his leg, caused by a bad fall, and was unable to sit his horse. This had been gall and wormwood to him. But when the big white automobile came and he was elected to drive it, life was once more worth living for him. But all the other cowboys regarded Link and his machine as some correlated species of demon. They were deathly afraid of both.
It was for this reason that Nels, when Madeline asked him to accompany her to Chiricahua, replied, reluctantly, that he would rather follow on his horse. However, she prevailed over his hesitancy, and with Florence also in the car they set out. For miles and miles the valley road was smooth, hard-packed, and slightly downhill. And when speeding was perfectly safe, Madeline was not averse to it. The grassy plain sailed backward in gray sheets, and the little dot in the valley grew larger and larger. From time to time Link glanced round at unhappy Nels, whose eyes were wild and whose hands clutched his seat. While the car was crossing the sandy and rocky places, going slowly, Nels appeared to breathe easier. And when it stopped in the wide, dusty street of Chiricahua Nels gladly tumbled out.
"Nels, we shall wait here in the car while you find Stewart," said Madeline.
"Miss Hammond, I reckon Gene'll run when he sees us, if he's able to run," replied Nels. "Wal, I'll go find him an' make up my mind then what we'd better do."
Nels crossed the railroad track and disappeared behind the low, flat houses. After a little time he reappeared and hurried up to the car. Madeline felt his gray gaze searching her face.
"Miss Hammond, I found him," said Nels. "He was sleepin'. I woke him. He's sober an' not bad hurt; but I don't believe you ought to see him. Mebbe Florence—"
"Nels, I want to see him myself. Why not? What did he say when you told him I was here?"
"Shore I didn't tell him that. I jest says, 'Hullo, Gene!' an' he says, 'My Gawd! Nels! mebbe I ain't glad to see a human bein'.' He asked me who was with me, an' I told him Link an' some friends. I said I'd fetch them in. He hollered at thet. But I went, anyway. Now, if you really will see him, Miss Hammond, it's a good chance. But shore it's a touchy matter, an' you'll be some sick at sight of him. He's layin' in a Greaser hole over here. Likely the Greasers hev been kind to him. But they're shore a poor lot."
Madeline did not hesitate a moment.
"Thank you, Nels. Take me at once. Come, Florence."
They left the car, now surrounded by gaping-eyed Mexican children, and crossed the dusty space to a narrow lane between red adobe walls. Passing by several houses, Nels stopped at the door of what appeared to be an alleyway leading back. It was filthy.
"He's in there, around thet first corner. It's a patio, open an' sunny. An', Miss Hammond, if you don't mind, I'll wait here for you. I reckon Gene wouldn't like any fellers around when he sees you girls."
It was that which made Madeline hesitate then and go forward slowly. She had given no thought at all to what Stewart might feel when suddenly surprised by her presence.
"Florence, you wait also," said Madeline, at the doorway, and turned in alone.
And she had stepped into a broken-down patio littered with alfalfa straw and debris, all clear in the sunlight. Upon a bench, back toward her, sat a man looking out through the rents in the broken wall. He had not heard her. The place was not quite so filthy and stifling as the passages Madeline had come through to get there. Then she saw that it had been used as a corral. A rat ran boldly across the dirt floor. The air swarmed with flies, which the man brushed at with weary hand. Madeline did not recognize Stewart. The side of his face exposed to her gaze was black, bruised, bearded. His clothes were ragged and soiled. There were bits of alfalfa in his hair. His shoulders sagged. He made a wretched and hopeless figure sitting there. Madeline divined something of why Nels shrank from being present.
"Mr. Stewart. It is I, Miss Hammond, come to see you," she said.
He grew suddenly perfectly motionless, as if he had been changed to stone. She repeated her greeting.
His body jerked. He moved violently as if instinctively to turn and face this intruder; but a more violent movement checked him.
Madeline waited. How singular that this ruined cowboy had pride which kept him from showing his face! And was it not shame more than pride?
"Mr. Stewart, I have come to talk with you, if you will let me."
"Go away," he muttered.
"Mr. Stewart!" she began, with involuntary hauteur. But instantly she corrected herself, became deliberate and cool, for she saw that she might fail to be even heard by this man. "I have come to help you. Will you let me?"
"For God's sake! You—you—" he choked over the words. "Go away!"
"Stewart, perhaps it was for God's sake that I came," said Madeline, gently. "Surely it was for yours—and your sister's—" Madeline bit her tongue, for she had not meant to betray her knowledge of Letty.
He groaned, and, staggering up to the broken wall, he leaned there with his face hidden. Madeline reflected that perhaps the slip of speech had been well.
"Stewart, please let me say what I have to say?"
He was silent. And she gathered courage and inspiration.
"Stillwell is deeply hurt, deeply grieved that he could not turn you back from this—this fatal course. My brother is also. They wanted to help you. And so do I. I have come, thinking somehow I might succeed where they have failed. Nels brought your sister's letter. I—I read it. I was only the more determined to try to help you, and indirectly help your mother and Letty. Stewart, we want you to come to the ranch. Stillwell needs you for his foreman. The position is open to you, and you can name your salary. Both Al and Stillwell are worried about Don Carlos, the vaqueros, and the raids down along the border. My cowboys are without a capable leader. Will you come?"
"No," he answered.
"But Stillwell wants you so badly."
"Stewart, I want you to come."
His replies had been hoarse, loud, furious. They disconcerted Madeline, and she paused, trying to think of a way to proceed. Stewart staggered away from the wall, and, falling upon the bench, he hid his face in his hands. All his motions, like his speech, had been violent.
"Will you please go away?" he asked.
"Stewart, certainly I cannot remain here longer if you insist upon my going. But why not listen to me when I want so much to help you? Why?"
"I'm a damned blackguard," he burst out. "But I was a gentleman once, and I'm not so low that I can stand for you seeing me here."
"When I made up my mind to help you I made it up to see you wherever you were. Stewart, come away, come back with us to the ranch. You are in a bad condition now. Everything looks black to you. But that will pass. When you are among friends again you will get well. You will be your old self. The very fact that you were once a gentleman, that you come of good family, makes you owe so much more to yourself. Why, Stewart, think how young you are! It is a shame to waste your life. Come back with me."
"Miss Hammond, this was my last plunge," he replied, despondently. "It's too late."
"Oh no, it is not so bad as that."
"It's too late."
"At least make an effort, Stewart. Try!"
"No. There's no use. I'm done for. Please leave me—thank you for—"
He had been savage, then sullen, and now he was grim. Madeline all but lost power to resist his strange, deadly, cold finality. No doubt he knew he was doomed. Yet something halted her—held her even as she took a backward step. And she became conscious of a subtle change in her own feeling. She had come into that squalid hole, Madeline Hammond, earnest enough, kind enough in her own intentions; but she had been almost imperious—a woman habitually, proudly used to being obeyed. She divined that all the pride, blue blood, wealth, culture, distinction, all the impersonal condescending persuasion, all the fatuous philanthropy on earth would not avail to turn this man a single hair's-breadth from his downward career to destruction. Her coming had terribly augmented his bitter hate of himself. She was going to fail to help him. She experienced a sensation of impotence that amounted almost to distress. The situation assumed a tragic keenness. She had set forth to reverse the tide of a wild cowboy's fortunes; she faced the swift wasting of his life, the damnation of his soul. The subtle consciousness of change in her was the birth of that faith she had revered in Stillwell. And all at once she became merely a woman, brave and sweet and indomitable.
"Stewart, look at me," she said.
He shuddered. She advanced and laid a hand on his bent shoulder. Under the light touch he appeared to sink.
"Look at me," she repeated.
But he could not lift his head. He was abject, crushed. He dared not show his swollen, blackened face. His fierce, cramped posture revealed more than his features might have shown; it betrayed the torturing shame of a man of pride and passion, a man who had been confronted in his degradation by the woman he had dared to enshrine in his heart. It betrayed his love.
"Listen, then," went on Madeline, and her voice was unsteady. "Listen to me, Stewart. The greatest men are those who have fallen deepest into the mire, sinned most, suffered most, and then have fought their evil natures and conquered. I think you can shake off this desperate mood and be a man."
"No!" he cried.
"Listen to me again. Somehow I know you're worthy of Stillwell's love. Will you come back with us—for his sake?"
"No. It's too late, I tell you."
"Stewart, the best thing in life is faith in human nature. I have faith in you. I believe you are worth it."
"You're only kind and good—saying that. You can't mean it."
"I mean it with all my heart," she replied, a sudden rich warmth suffusing her body as she saw the first sign of his softening. "Will you come back—if not for your own sake or Stillwell's—then for mine?"
"What am I to such a woman as you?"
"A man in trouble, Stewart. But I have come to help you, to show my faith in you."
"If I believed that I might try," he said.
"Listen," she began, softly, hurriedly. "My word is not lightly given. Let it prove my faith in you. Look at me now and say you will come."
He heaved up his big frame as if trying to cast off a giant's burden, and then slowly he turned toward her. His face was a blotched and terrible thing. The physical brutalizing marks were there, and at that instant all that appeared human to Madeline was the dawning in dead, furnace-like eyes of a beautiful light.
"I'll come," he whispered, huskily. "Give me a few days to straighten up, then I'll come."
IX. The New Foreman
Toward the end of the week Stillwell informed Madeline that Stewart had arrived at the ranch and had taken up quarters with Nels.
"Gene's sick. He looks bad," said the old cattleman. "He's so weak an' shaky he can't lift a cup. Nels says that Gene has hed some bad spells. A little liquor would straighten him up now. But Nels can't force him to drink a drop, an' has hed to sneak some liquor in his coffee. Wal, I think we'll pull Gene through. He's forgotten a lot. I was goin' to tell him what he did to me up at Rodeo. But I know if he'd believe it he'd be sicker than he is. Gene's losin' his mind, or he's got somethin' powerful strange on it."
From that time Stillwell, who evidently found Madeline his most sympathetic listener, unburdened himself daily of his hopes and fears and conjectures.
Stewart was really ill. It became necessary to send Link Stevens for a physician. Then Stewart began slowly to mend and presently was able to get up and about. Stillwell said the cowboy lacked interest and seemed to be a broken man. This statement, however, the old cattleman modified as Stewart continued to improve. Then presently it was a good augury of Stewart's progress that the cowboys once more took up the teasing relation which had been characteristic of them before his illness. A cowboy was indeed out of sorts when he could not vent his peculiar humor on somebody or something. Stewart had evidently become a broad target for their badinage.
"Wal, the boys are sure after Gene," said Stillwell, with his huge smile. "Joshin' him all the time about how he sits around an' hangs around an' loafs around jest to get a glimpse of you, Miss Majesty. Sure all the boys hev a pretty bad case over their pretty boss, but none of them is a marker to Gene. He's got it so bad, Miss Majesty, thet he actooly don't know they are joshin' him. It's the amazin'est strange thing I ever seen. Why, Gene was always a feller thet you could josh. An' he'd laugh an' get back at you. But he was never before deaf to talk, an' there was a certain limit no feller cared to cross with him. Now he takes every word an' smiles dreamy like, an' jest looks an' looks. Why, he's beginnin' to make me tired. He'll never run thet bunch of cowboys if he doesn't wake up quick."
Madeline smiled her amusement and expressed a belief that Stillwell wanted too much in such short time from a man who had done body and mind a grievous injury.
It had been impossible for Madeline to fail to observe Stewart's singular behavior. She never went out to take her customary walks and rides without seeing him somewhere in the distance. She was aware that he watched for her and avoided meeting her. When she sat on the porch during the afternoon or at sunset Stewart could always be descried at some point near. He idled listlessly in the sun, lounged on the porch of his bunk-house, sat whittling the top bar of the corral fence, and always it seemed to Madeline he was watching her. Once, while going the rounds with her gardener, she encountered Stewart and greeted him kindly. He said little, but he was not embarrassed. She did not recognize in his face any feature that she remembered. In fact, on each of the few occasions when she had met Stewart he had looked so different that she had no consistent idea of his facial appearance. He was now pale, haggard, drawn. His eyes held a shadow through which shone a soft, subdued light; and, once having observed this, Madeline fancied it was like the light in Majesty's eyes, in the dumb, worshiping eyes of her favorite stag-hound. She told Stewart that she hoped he would soon be in the saddle again, and passed on her way.
That Stewart loved her Madeline could not help but see. She endeavored to think of him as one of the many who, she was glad to know, liked her. But she could not regulate her thoughts to fit the order her intelligence prescribed. Thought of Stewart dissociated itself from thought of the other cowboys. When she discovered this she felt a little surprise and annoyance. Then she interrogated herself, and concluded that it was not that Stewart was so different from his comrades, but that circumstances made him stand out from them. She recalled her meeting with him that night when he had tried to force her to marry him. This was unforgettable in itself. She called subsequent mention of him, and found it had been peculiarly memorable. The man and his actions seemed to hinge on events. Lastly, the fact standing clear of all others in its relation to her interest was that he had been almost ruined, almost lost, and she had saved him. That alone was sufficient to explain why she thought of him differently. She had befriended, uplifted the other cowboys; she had saved Stewart's life. To be sure, he had been a ruffian, but a woman could not save the life of even a ruffian without remembering it with gladness. Madeline at length decided her interest in Stewart was natural, and that her deeper feeling was pity. Perhaps the interest had been forced from her; however, she gave the pity as she gave everything.
Stewart recovered his strength, though not in time to ride at the spring round-up; and Stillwell discussed with Madeline the advisability of making the cowboy his foreman.
"Wal, Gene seems to be gettin' along," said Stillwell. "But he ain't like his old self. I think more of him at thet. But where's his spirit? The boys'd ride rough-shod all over him. Mebbe I'd do best to wait longer now, as the slack season is on. All the same, if those vaquero of Don Carlos's don't lay low I'll send Gene over there. Thet'll wake him up."
A few days afterward Stillwell came to Madeline, rubbing his big hands in satisfaction and wearing a grin that was enormous.
"Miss Majesty, I reckon before this I've said things was amazin' strange. But now Gene Stewart has gone an' done it! Listen to me. Them Greasers down on our slope hev been gettin' prosperous. They're growin' like bad weeds. An' they got a new padre—the little old feller from El Cajon, Padre Marcos. Wal, this was all right, all the boys thought, except Gene. An' he got blacker 'n thunder an' roared round like a dehorned bull. I was sure glad to see he could get mad again. Then Gene haids down the slope fer the church. Nels an' me follered him, thinkin' he might hev been took sudden with a crazy spell or somethin'. He hasn't never been jest right yet since he left off drinkin'. Wal, we run into him comin' out of the church. We never was so dumfounded in our lives. Gene was crazy, all right—he sure hed a spell. But it was the kind of a spell he hed thet paralyzed us. He ran past us like a streak, an' we follered. We couldn't ketch him. We heerd him laugh—the strangest laugh I ever heerd! You'd thought the feller was suddenly made a king. He was like thet feller who was tied in a bunyin'-sack an' throwed into the sea, an' cut his way out, an' swam to the island where the treasures was, an' stood up yellin', 'The world is mine.' Wal, when we got up to his bunk-house he was gone. He didn't come back all day an' all night. Frankie Slade, who has a sharp tongue, says Gene hed gone crazy for liquor an' thet was his finish. Nels was some worried. An' I was sick.
"Wal' this mawnin' I went over to Nels's bunk. Some of the fellers was there, all speculatin' about Gene. Then big as life Gene struts round the corner. He wasn't the same Gene. His face was pale an' his eyes burned like fire. He had thet old mockin', cool smile, an' somethin' besides thet I couldn't understand. Frankie Slade up an' made a remark—no wuss than he'd been makin' fer days—an' Gene tumbled him out of his chair, punched him good, walked all over him. Frankie wasn't hurt so much as he was bewildered. 'Gene,' he says, 'what the hell struck you?' An' Gene says, kind of sweet like, 'Frankie, you may be a nice feller when you're alone, but your talk's offensive to a gentleman.'
"After thet what was said to Gene was with a nice smile. Now, Miss Majesty, it's beyond me what to allow for Gene's sudden change. First off, I thought Padre Marcos had converted him. I actooly thought thet. But I reckon it's only Gene Stewart come back—the old Gene Stewart an' some. Thet's all I care about. I'm rememberin' how I once told you thet Gene was the last of the cowboys. Perhaps I should hev said he's the last of my kind of cowboys. Wal, Miss Majesty, you'll be apprecatin' of what I meant from now on."
It was also beyond Madeline to account for Gene Stewart's antics, and, making allowance for the old cattleman's fancy, she did not weigh his remarks very heavily. She guessed why Stewart might have been angry at the presence of Padre Marcos. Madeline supposed that it was rather an unusual circumstance for a cowboy to be converted to religious belief. But it was possible. And she knew that religious fervor often manifested itself in extremes of feeling and action. Most likely, in Stewart's case, his real manner had been both misunderstood and exaggerated. However, Madeline had a curious desire, which she did not wholly admit to herself, to see the cowboy and make her own deductions.
The opportunity did not present itself for nearly two weeks. Stewart had taken up his duties as foreman, and his activities were ceaseless. He was absent most of the time, ranging down toward the Mexican line. When he returned Stillwell sent for him.
This was late in the afternoon of a day in the middle of April. Alfred and Florence were with Madeline on the porch. They saw the cowboy turn his horse over to one of the Mexican boys at the corral and then come with weary step up to the house, beating the dust out of his gauntlets. Little streams of gray sand trickled from his sombrero as he removed it and bowed to the women.
Madeline saw the man she remembered, but with a singularly different aspect. His skin was brown; his eyes were piercing and dark and steady; he carried himself erect; he seemed preoccupied, and there was not a trace of embarrassment in his manner.
"Wal, Gene, I'm sure glad to see you," Stillwell was saying. "Where do you hail from?"
"Guadaloupe Canyon," replied the cowboy.
"Way down there! You don't mean you follered them hoss tracks thet far?"
"All the way from Don Carlos's rancho across the Mexican line. I took Nick Steele with me. Nick is the best tracker in the outfit. This trail we were on led along the foothill valleys. First we thought whoever made it was hunting for water. But they passed two ranches without watering. At Seaton's Wash they dug for water. Here they met a pack-train of burros that came down the mountain trail. The burros were heavily loaded. Horse and burro tracks struck south from Seaton's to the old California emigrant road. We followed the trail through Guadelope Canyon and across the border. On the way back we stopped at Slaughter's ranch, where the United States cavalry are camping. There we met foresters from the Peloncillo forest reserve. If these fellows knew anything they kept it to themselves. So we hit the trail home."
"Wal, I reckon you know enough?" inquired Stillwell, slowly.
"I reckon," replied Stewart.
"Wal, out with it, then," said Stillwell, gruffly. "Miss Hammond can't be kept in the dark much longer. Make your report to her."
The cowboy shifted his dark gaze to Madeline. He was cool and slow.
"We're losing a few cattle on the open range. Night-drives by the vaqueros. Some of these cattle are driven across the valley, others up to the foothills. So far as I can find out no cattle are being driven south. So this raiding is a blind to fool the cowboys. Don Carlos is a Mexican rebel. He located his rancho here a few years ago and pretended to raise cattle. All that time he has been smuggling arms and ammunition across the border. He was for Madero against Diaz. Now he is against Madero because he and all the rebels think Madero failed to keep his promises. There will be another revolution. And all the arms go from the States across the border. Those burros I told about were packed with contraband goods."
"That's a matter for the United States cavalry. They are patrolling the border," said Alfred.
"They can't stop the smuggling of arms, not down in that wild corner," replied Stewart.
"What is my—my duty? What has it to do with me?" inquired Madeline, somewhat perturbed.
"Wal, Miss Majesty, I reckon it hasn't nothing to do with you," put in Stillwell. "Thet's my bizness an' Stewart's. But I jest wanted you to know. There might be some trouble follerin' my orders."
"I want to send Stewart over to fire Don Carlos an' his vaqueros off the range. They've got to go. Don Carlos is breakin' the law of the United States, an' doin' it on our property an' with our hosses. Hev I your permission, Miss Hammond?"
"Why, assuredly you have! Stillwell, you know what to do. Alfred, what do you think best?"
"It'll make trouble, Majesty, but it's got to be done," replied Alfred. "Here you have a crowd of Eastern friends due next month. We want the range to ourselves then. But, Stillwell, if you drive those vaqueros off, won't they hang around in the foothills? I declare they are a bad lot."
Stillwell's mind was not at ease. He paced the porch with a frown clouding his brow.
"Gene, I reckon you got this Greaser deal figgered better'n me," said Stillwell. "Now what do you say?"
"He'll have to be forced off," replied Stewart, quietly. "The Don's pretty slick, but his vaqueros are bad actors. It's just this way. Nels said the other day to me, 'Gene, I haven't packed a gun for years until lately, and it feels good whenever I meet any of those strange Greasers.' You see, Stillwell, Don Carlos has vaqueros coming and going all the time. They're guerrilla bands, that's all. And they're getting uglier. There have been several shooting-scrapes lately. A rancher named White, who lives up the valley, was badly hurt. It's only a matter of time till something stirs up the boys here. Stillwell, you know Nels and Monty and Nick."
"Sure I know 'em. An' you're not mentionin' one more particular cowboy in my outfit," said Stillwell, with a dry chuckle and a glance at Stewart.
Madeline divined the covert meaning, and a slight chill passed over her, as if a cold wind had blown in from the hills.
"Stewart, I see you carry a gun," she said, pointing to a black handle protruding from a sheath swinging low along his leather chaps.
"Why do you carry it?" she asked.
"Well," he said, "it's not a pretty gun—and it's heavy." She caught the inference. The gun was not an ornament. His keen, steady, dark gaze caused her vague alarm. What had once seemed cool and audacious about this cowboy was now cold and powerful and mystical. Both her instinct and her intelligence realized the steel fiber of the man's nature. As she was his employer, she had the right to demand that he should not do what was so chillingly manifest that he might do. But Madeline could not demand. She felt curiously young and weak, and the five months of Western life were as if they had never been. She now had to do with a question involving human life. And the value she placed upon human life and its spiritual significance was a matter far from her cowboy's thoughts. A strange idea flashed up. Did she place too much value upon all human life? She checked that, wondering, almost horrified at herself. And then her intuition told her that she possessed a far stronger power to move these primitive men than any woman's stern rule or order.
"Stewart, I do not fully understand what you hint that Nels and his comrades might do. Please be frank with me. Do you mean Nels would shoot upon little provocation?"
"Miss Hammond, as far as Nels is concerned, shooting is now just a matter of his meeting Don Carlos's vaqueros. It's wonderful what Nels has stood from them, considering the Mexicans he's already killed."
"Already killed! Stewart, you are not in earnest?" cried Madeline, shocked.
"I am. Nels has seen hard life along the Arizona border. He likes peace as well as any man. But a few years of that doesn't change what the early days made of him. As for Nick Steele and Monty, they're just bad men, and looking for trouble."
"How about yourself, Stewart? Stillwell's remark was not lost upon me," said Madeline, prompted by curiosity.
Stewart did not reply. He looked at her in respectful silence. In her keen earnestness Madeline saw beneath his cool exterior and was all the more baffled. Was there a slight, inscrutable, mocking light in his eyes, or was it only her imagination? However, the cowboy's face was as hard as flint.
"Stewart, I have come to love my ranch," said Madeline, slowly, "and I care a great deal for my—my cowboys. It would be dreadful if they were to kill anybody, or especially if one of them should be killed."
"Miss Hammond, you've changed things considerable out here, but you can't change these men. All that's needed to start them is a little trouble. And this Mexican revolution is bound to make rough times along some of the wilder passes across the border. We're in line, that's all. And the boys are getting stirred up."
"Very well, then, I must accept the inevitable. I am facing a rough time. And some of my cowboys cannot be checked much longer. But, Stewart, whatever you have been in the past, you have changed." She smiled at him, and her voice was singularly sweet and rich. "Stillwell has so often referred to you as the last of his kind of cowboy. I have just a faint idea of what a wild life you have led. Perhaps that fits you to be a leader of such rough men. I am no judge of what a leader should do in this crisis. My cowboys are entailing risk in my employ; my property is not safe; perhaps my life even might be endangered. I want to rely upon you, since Stillwell believes, and I, too, that you are the man for this place. I shall give you no orders. But is it too much to ask that you be my kind of a cowboy?"
Madeline remembered Stewart's former brutality and shame and abject worship, and she measured the great change in him by the contrast afforded now in his dark, changeless, intent face.
"Miss Hammond, what kind of a cowboy is that?" he asked.
"I—I don't exactly know. It is that kind which I feel you might be. But I do know that in the problem at hand I want your actions to be governed by reason, not passion. Human life is not for any man to sacrifice unless in self-defense or in protecting those dependent upon him. What Stillwell and you hinted makes me afraid of Nels and Nick Steele and Monty. Cannot they be controlled? I want to feel that they will not go gunning for Don Carlos's men. I want to avoid all violence. And yet when my guests come I want to feel that they will be safe from danger or fright or even annoyance. May I not rely wholly upon you, Stewart? Just trust you to manage these obstreperous cowboys and protect my property and Alfred's, and take care of us—of me, until this revolution is ended? I have never had a day's worry since I bought the ranch. It is not that I want to shirk my responsibilities; it is that I like being happy. May I put so much faith in you?"
"I hope so, Miss Hammond," replied Stewart. It was an instant response, but none the less fraught with consciousness of responsibility. He waited a moment, and then, as neither Stillwell nor Madeline offered further speech, he bowed and turned down the path, his long spurs clinking in the gravel.
"Wal, wal," exclaimed Stillwell, "thet's no little job you give him, Miss Majesty."
"It was a woman's cunning, Stillwell," said Alfred. "My sister used to be a wonder at getting her own way when we were kids. Just a smile or two, a few sweet words or turns of thought, and she had what she wanted."
"Al, what a character to give me!" protested Madeline. "Indeed, I was deeply in earnest with Stewart. I do not understand just why, but I trust him. He seems like iron and steel. Then I was a little frightened at the prospect of trouble with the vaqueros. Both you and Stillwell have influenced me to look upon Stewart as invaluable. I thought it best to confess my utter helplessness and to look to him for support."
"Majesty, whatever actuated you, it was a stroke of diplomacy," replied her brother. "Stewart has got good stuff in him. He was down and out. Well, he's made a game fight, and it looks as if he'd win. Trusting him, giving him responsibility, relying upon him, was the surest way to strengthen his hold upon himself. Then that little touch of sentiment about being your kind of cowboy and protecting you—well, if Gene Stewart doesn't develop into an Argus-eyed knight I'll say I don't know cowboys. But, Majesty, remember, he's a composite of tiger breed and forked lightning, and don't imagine he has failed you if he gets into a fight.
"I'll sure tell you what Gene Stewart will do," said Florence. "Don't I know cowboys? Why, they used to take me up on their horses when I was a baby. Gene Stewart will be the kind of cowboy your sister said he might be, whatever that is. She may not know and we may not guess, but he knows."
"Wal, Flo, there you hit plumb center," replied the old cattleman. "An' I couldn't be gladder if he was my own son."
X. Don Carlos's Vaqueros
Early the following morning Stewart, with a company of cowboys, departed for Don Carlos's rancho. As the day wore on without any report from him, Stillwell appeared to grow more at ease; and at nightfall he told Madeline that he guessed there was now no reason for concern.
"Wal, though it's sure amazin' strange," he continued, "I've been worryin' some about how we was goin' to fire Don Carlos. But Gene has a way of doin' things."
Next day Stillwell and Alfred decided to ride over Don Carlos's place, taking Madeline and Florence with them, and upon the return trip to stop at Alfred's ranch. They started in the cool, gray dawn, and after three hours' riding, as the sun began to get bright, they entered a mesquite grove, surrounding corrals and barns, and a number of low, squat buildings and a huge, rambling structure, all built of adobe and mostly crumbling to ruin. Only one green spot relieved the bald red of grounds and walls; and this evidently was made by the spring which had given both value and fame to Don Carlos's range. The approach to the house was through a wide courtyard, bare, stony, hard packed, with hitching-rails and watering-troughs in front of a long porch. Several dusty, tired horses stood with drooping heads and bridles down, their wet flanks attesting to travel just ended.
"Wal, dog-gone it, Al, if there ain't Pat Hawe's hoss I'll eat it," exclaimed Stillwell.
"What's Pat want here, anyhow?" growled Alfred.
No one was in sight; but Madeline heard loud voices coming from the house. Stillwell dismounted at the porch and stalked in at the door. Alfred leaped off his horse, helped Florence and Madeline down, and, bidding them rest and wait on the porch, he followed Stillwell.
"I hate these Greaser places," said Florence, with a grimace. "They're so mysterious and creepy. Just watch now! They'll be dark-skinned, beady-eyed, soft-footed Greasers slip right up out of the ground! There'll be an ugly face in every door and window and crack."
"It's like a huge barn with its characteristic odor permeated by tobacco smoke," replied Madeline, sitting down beside Florence. "I don't think very much of this end of my purchase. Florence, isn't that Don Carlos's black horse over there in the corral?"
"It sure is. Then the Don's heah yet. I wish we hadn't been in such a hurry to come over. There! that doesn't sound encouraging."
From the corridor came the rattling of spurs, tramping of boots, and loud voices. Madeline detected Alfred's quick notes when he was annoyed: "We'll rustle back home, then," he said. The answer came, "No!" Madeline recognized Stewart's voice, and she quickly straightened up. "I won't have them in here," went on Alfred.
"Outdoors or in, they've got to be with us!" replied Stewart, sharply. "Listen, Al," came the boom of Stillwell's big voice, "now that we've butted in over hyar with the girls, you let Stewart run things."
Then a crowd of men tramped pell-mell out upon the porch. Stewart, dark-browed and somber, was in the lead. Nels hung close to him, and Madeline's quick glance saw that Nels had undergone some indescribable change. The grinning, brilliant-eyed Don Carlos came jostling out beside a gaunt, sharp-featured man wearing a silver shield. This, no doubt, was Pat Hawe. In the background behind Stillwell and Alfred stood Nick Steele, head and shoulders over a number of vaqueros and cowboys.
"Miss Hammond, I'm sorry you came," said Stewart, bluntly. "We're in a muddle here. I've insisted that you and Flo be kept close to us. I'll explain later. If you can't stop your ears I beg you to overlook rough talk."
With that he turned to the men behind him: "Nick, take Booly, go back to Monty and the boys. Fetch out that stuff. All of it. Rustle, now!"
Stillwell and Alfred disengaged themselves from the crowd to take up positions in front of Madeline and Florence. Pat Hawe leaned against a post and insolently ogled Madeline and then Florence. Don Carlos pressed forward. His whole figure filled Madeline's reluctant but fascinated eyes. He wore tight velveteen breeches, with a heavy fold down the outside seam, which was ornamented with silver buttons. Round his waist was a sash, and a belt with fringed holster, from which protruded a pearl-handled gun. A vest or waistcoat, richly embroidered, partly concealed a blouse of silk and wholly revealed a silken scarf round his neck. His swarthy face showed dark lines, like cords, under the surface. His little eyes were exceedingly prominent and glittering. To Madeline his face seemed to be a bold, handsome mask through which his eyes piercingly betrayed the evil nature of the man.
He bowed low with elaborate and sinuous grace. His smile revealed brilliant teeth, enhanced the brilliance of his eyes. He slowly spread deprecatory hands.
"Senoritas, I beg a thousand pardons," he said. How strange it was for Madeline to hear English spoken in a soft, whiningly sweet accent! "The gracious hospitality of Don Carlos has passed with his house."
Stewart stepped forward and, thrusting Don Carlos aside, he called, "Make way, there!"
The crowd fell back to the tramp of heavy boots. Cowboys appeared staggering out of the corridor with long boxes. These they placed side by side upon the floor of the porch.
"Now, Hawe, we'll proceed with our business," said Stewart. "You see these boxes, don't you?"
"I reckon I see a good many things round hyar," replied Hawe, meaningly.
"Well, do you intend to open these boxes upon my say-so?"
"No!" retorted Hawe. "It's not my place to meddle with property as come by express an' all accounted fer regular."
"You call yourself a sheriff!" exclaimed Stewart, scornfully.
"Mebbe you'll think so before long," rejoined Hawe, sullenly.
"I'll open them. Here, one of you boys, knock the tops off these boxes," ordered Stewart. "No, not you, Monty. You use your eyes. Let Booly handle the ax. Rustle, now!"
Monty Price had jumped out of the crowd into the middle of the porch. The manner in which he gave way to Booly and faced the vaqueros was not significant of friendliness or trust.
"Stewart, you're dead wrong to bust open them boxes. Thet's ag'in' the law," protested Hawe, trying to interfere.
Stewart pushed him back. Then Don Carlos, who had been stunned by the appearance of the boxes, suddenly became active in speech and person. Stewart thrust him back also. The Mexican's excitement increased. He wildly gesticulated; he exclaimed shrilly in Spanish. When, however, the lids were wrenched open and an inside packing torn away he grew rigid and silent. Madeline raised herself behind Stillwell to see that the boxes were full of rifles and ammunition.
"There, Hawe! What did I tell you?" demanded Stewart. "I came over here to take charge of this ranch. I found these boxes hidden in an unused room. I suspected what they were. Contraband goods!"
"Wal, supposin' they are? I don't see any call fer sech all-fired fuss as you're makin'. Stewart, I calkilate you're some stuck on your new job an' want to make a big show before—"
"Hawe, stop slinging that kind of talk," interrupted Stewart. "You got too free with your mouth once before! Now here, I'm supposed to be consulting an officer of the law. Will you take charge of these contraband goods?"
"Say, you're holdin' on high an' mighty," replied Hawe, in astonishment that was plainly pretended. "What 're you drivin' at?"
Stewart muttered an imprecation. He took several swift strides across the porch; he held out his hands to Stillwell as if to indicate the hopelessness of intelligent and reasonable arbitration; he looked at Madeline with a glance eloquent of his regret that he could not handle the situation to please her. Then as he wheeled he came face to face with Nels, who had slipped forward out of the crowd.
Madeline gathered serious import from the steel-blue meaning flash of eyes whereby Nels communicated something to Stewart. Whatever that something was, it dispelled Stewart's impatience. A slight movement of his hand brought Monty Price forward with a jump. In these sudden jumps of Monty's there was a suggestion of restrained ferocity. Then Nels and Monty lined up behind Stewart. It was a deliberate action, even to Madeline, unmistakably formidable. Pat Hawe's face took on an ugly look; his eyes had a reddish gleam. Don Carlos added a pale face and extreme nervousness to his former expressions of agitation. The cowboys edged away from the vaqueros and the bronzed, bearded horsemen who were evidently Hawe's assistants.
"I'm driving at this," spoke up Stewart, presently; and now he was slow and caustic. "Here's contraband of war! Hawe, do you get that? Arms and ammunition for the rebels across the border! I charge you as an officer to confiscate these goods and to arrest the smuggler—Don Carlos."
These words of Stewart's precipitated a riot among Don Carlos and his followers, and they surged wildly around the sheriff. There was an upflinging of brown, clenching hands, a shrill, jabbering babel of Mexican voices. The crowd around Don Carlos grew louder and denser with the addition of armed vaqueros and barefooted stable-boys and dusty-booted herdsmen and blanketed Mexicans, the last of whom suddenly slipped from doors and windows and round comers. It was a motley assemblage. The laced, fringed, ornamented vaqueros presented a sharp contrast to the bare-legged, sandal-footed boys and the ragged herders. Shrill cries, evidently from Don Carlos, somewhat quieted the commotion. Then Don Carlos could be heard addressing Sheriff Hawe in an exhortation of mingled English and Spanish. He denied, he avowed, he proclaimed, and all in rapid, passionate utterance. He tossed his black hair in his vehemence; he waved his fists and stamped the floor; he rolled his glittering eyes; he twisted his thin lips into a hundred different shapes, and like a cornered wolf showed snarling white teeth.
It seemed to Madeline that Don Carlos denied knowledge of the boxes of contraband goods, then knowledge of their real contents, then knowledge of their destination, and, finally, everything except that they were there in sight, damning witnesses to somebody's complicity in the breaking of neutrality laws. Passionate as had been his denial of all this, it was as nothing compared to his denunciation of Stewart.
"Senor Stewart, he keel my Vaquero!" shouted Don Carlos, as, sweating and spent, he concluded his arraignment of the cowboy. "Him you must arrest! Senor Stewart a bad man! He keel my vaquero!"
"Do you hear thet?" yelled Hawe. "The Don's got you figgered fer thet little job at El Cajon last fall."
The clamor burst into a roar. Hawe began shaking his finger in Stewart's face and hoarsely shouting. Then a lithe young vaquero, swift as an Indian, glided under Hawe's uplifted arm. Whatever the action he intended, he was too late for its execution. Stewart lunged out, struck the vaquero, and knocked him off the porch. As he fell a dagger glittered in the sunlight and rolled clinking over the stones. The man went down hard and did not move. With the same abrupt violence, and a manner of contempt, Stewart threw Hawe off the porch, then Don Carlos, who, being less supple, fell heavily. Then the mob backed before Stewart's rush until all were down in the courtyard.
The shuffling of feet ceased, the clanking of spurs, and the shouting. Nels and Monty, now reinforced by Nick Steele, were as shadows of Stewart, so closely did they follow him. Stewart waved them back and stepped down into the yard. He was absolutely fearless; but what struck Madeline so keenly was his magnificent disdain. Manifestly, he knew the nature of the men with whom he was dealing. From the look of him it was natural for Madeline to expect them to give way before him, which they did, even Hawe and his attendants sullenly retreating.
Don Carlos got up to confront Stewart. The prostrate vaquero stirred and moaned, but did not rise.
"You needn't jibber Spanish to me," said Stewart. "You can talk American, and you can understand American. If you start a rough-house here you and your Greasers will be cleaned up. You've got to leave this ranch. You can have the stock, the packs and traps in the second corral. There's grub, too. Saddle up and hit the trail. Don Carlos, I'm dealing more than square with you. You're lying about these boxes of guns and cartridges. You're breaking the laws of my country, and you're doing it on property in my charge. If I let smuggling go on here I'd be implicated myself. Now you get off the range. If you don't I'll have the United States cavalry here in six hours, and you can gamble they'll get what my cowboys leave of you."
Don Carlos was either a capital actor and gratefully relieved at Stewart's leniency or else he was thoroughly cowed by references to the troops. "Si, Senor! Gracias, Senor!" he exclaimed; and then, turning away, he called to his men. They hurried after him, while the fallen vaquero got to his feet with Stewart's help and staggered across the courtyard. In a moment they were gone, leaving Hawe and his several comrades behind.
Hawe was spitefully ejecting a wad of tobacco from his mouth and swearing in an undertone about "white-livered Greasers." He cocked his red eye speculatively at Stewart.
"Wal, I reckon as you're so hell-bent on doin' it up brown thet you'll try to fire me off'n the range, too?"
"If I ever do, Pat, you'll need to be carried off," replied Stewart. "Just now I'm politely inviting you and your deputy sheriffs to leave."
"We'll go; but we're comin' back one of these days, an' when we do we'll put you in irons."
"Hawe, if you've got it in that bad for me, come over here in the corral and let's fight it out."
"I'm an officer, an' I don't fight outlaws an' sich except when I hev to make arrests."
"Officer! You're a disgrace to the county. If you ever did get irons on me you'd take me some place out of sight, shoot me, and then swear you killed me in self-defense. It wouldn't be the first time you pulled that trick, Pat Hawe."
"Ho, ho!" laughed Hawe, derisively. Then he started toward the horses.
Stewart's long arm shot out, his hand clapped on Hawe's shoulder, spinning him round like a top.
"You're leaving, Pat, but before you leave you'll come out with your play or you'll crawl," said Stewart. "You've got it in for me, man to man. Speak up now and prove you're not the cowardly skunk I've always thought you. I've called your hand."
Pat Hawe's face turned a blackish-purple hue.
"You can jest bet thet I've got it in fer you," he shouted, hoarsely. "You're only a low-down cow-puncher. You never hed a dollar or a decent job till you was mixed up with thet Hammond woman—"
Stewart's hand flashed out and hit Hawe's face in a ringing slap. The sheriff's head jerked back, his sombrero fell to the ground. As he bent over to reach it his hand shook, his arm shook, his whole body shook.
Monty Price jumped straight forward and crouched down with a strange, low cry.
Stewart seemed all at once rigid, bending a little.
"Say Miss Hammond, if there's occasion to use her name," said Stewart, in a voice that seemed coolly pleasant, yet had a deadly undernote.
Hawe did a moment's battle with strangling fury, which he conquered in some measure.
"I said you was a low-down, drunken cow-puncher, a tough as damn near a desperado as we ever hed on the border," went on Hawe, deliberately. His speech appeared to be addressed to Stewart, although his flame-pointed eyes were riveted upon Monty Price. "I know you plugged that vaquero last fall, an' when I git my proof I'm comin' after you."
"That's all right, Hawe. You can call me what you like, and you can come after me when you like," replied Stewart. "But you're going to get in bad with me. You're in bad now with Monty and Nels. Pretty soon you'll queer yourself with all the cowboys and the ranchers, too. If that don't put sense into you—Here, listen to this. You knew what these boxes contained. You know Don Carlos has been smuggling arms and ammunition across the border. You know he is hand and glove with the rebels. You've been wearing blinders, and it has been to your interest. Take a hunch from me. That's all. Light out now, and the less we see of your handsome mug the better we'll like you."
Muttering, cursing, pallid of face, Hawe climbed astride his horse. His comrades followed suit. Certain it appeared that the sheriff was contending with more than fear and wrath. He must have had an irresistible impulse to fling more invective and threat upon Stewart, but he was speechless. Savagely he spurred his horse, and as it snorted and leaped he turned in his saddle, shaking his fist. His comrades led the way, with their horses clattering into a canter. They disappeared through the gate.
* * *
When, later in the day, Madeline and Florence, accompanied by Alfred and Stillwell, left Don Carlos's ranch it was not any too soon for Madeline. The inside of the Mexican's home was more unprepossessing and uncomfortable than the outside. The halls were dark, the rooms huge, empty, and musty; and there was an air of silence and secrecy and mystery about them most fitting to the character Florence had bestowed upon the place.
On the other hand, Alfred's ranch-house, where the party halted to spend the night, was picturesquely located, small and cozy, camplike in its arrangement, and altogether agreeable to Madeline.
The day's long rides and the exciting events had wearied her. She rested while Florence and the two men got supper. During the meal Stillwell expressed satisfaction over the good riddance of the vaqueros, and with his usual optimism trusted he had seen the last of them. Alfred, too, took a decidedly favorable view of the day's proceedings. However, it was not lost upon Madeline that Florence appeared unusually quiet and thoughtful. Madeline wondered a little at the cause. She remembered that Stewart had wanted to come with them, or detail a few cowboys to accompany them, but Alfred had laughed at the idea and would have none of it.
After supper Alfred monopolized the conversation by describing what he wanted to do to improve his home before he and Florence were married.
Then at an early hour they all retired.
Madeline's deep slumbers were disturbed by a pounding upon the wall, and then by Florence's crying out in answer to a call:
"Get up! Throw some clothes on and come out!"
It was Alfred's voice.
"What's the matter?" asked Florence, as she slipped out of bed.
"Alfred, is there anything wrong?" added Madeline, sitting up.
The room was dark as pitch, but a faint glow seemed to mark the position of the window.
"Oh, nothing much," replied Alfred. "Only Don Carlos's rancho going up in smoke."
"Fire!" cried Florence, sharply.
"You'll think so when you see it. Hurry out. Majesty, old girl, now you won't have to tear down that heap of adobe, as you threatened. I don't believe a wall will stand after that fire."
"Well, I'm glad of it," said Madeline. "A good healthy fire will purify the atmosphere over there and save me expense. Ugh! that haunted rancho got on my nerves! Florence, I do believe you've appropriated part of my riding-habit. Doesn't Alfred have lights in this house?"
Florence laughingly helped Madeline to dress. Then they hurriedly stumbled over chairs, and, passing through the dining-room, went out upon the porch.
Away to the westward, low down along the horizon, she saw leaping red flames and wind-swept columns of smoke.
Stillwell appeared greatly perturbed.
"Al, I'm lookin' fer that ammunition to blow up," he said. "There was enough of it to blow the roof off the rancho."
"Bill, surely the cowboys would get that stuff out the first thing," replied Alfred, anxiously.
"I reckon so. But all the same, I'm worryin'. Mebbe there wasn't time. Supposin' thet powder went off as the boys was goin' fer it or carryin' it out! We'll know soon. If the explosion doesn't come quick now we can figger the boys got the boxes out."
For the next few moments there was a silence of sustained and painful suspense. Florence gripped Madeline's arm. Madeline felt a fullness in her throat and a rapid beating of her heart. Presently she was relieved with the others when Stillwell declared the danger of an explosion needed to be feared no longer.
"Sure you can gamble on Gene Stewart," he added.
The night happened to be partly cloudy, with broken rifts showing the moon, and the wind blew unusually strong. The brightness of the fire seemed subdued. It was like a huge bonfire smothered by some great covering, penetrated by different, widely separated points of flame. These corners of flame flew up, curling in the wind, and then died down. Thus the scene was constantly changing from dull light to dark. There came a moment when a blacker shade overspread the wide area of flickering gleams and then obliterated them. Night enfolded the scene. The moon peeped a curved yellow rim from under broken clouds. To all appearances the fire had burned itself out. But suddenly a pinpoint of light showed where all had been dense black. It grew and became long and sharp. It moved. It had life. It leaped up. Its color warmed from white to red. Then from all about it burst flame on flame, to leap into a great changing pillar of fire that climbed high and higher. Huge funnels of smoke, yellow, black, white, all tinged with the color of fire, slanted skyward, drifting away on the wind.
"Wal, I reckon we won't hev the good of them two thousand tons of alfalfa we was figgerin' on," remarked Stillwell.
"Ah! Then that last outbreak of fire was burning hay," said Madeline. "I do not regret the rancho. But it's too bad to lose such a quantity of good feed for the stock."
"It's lost, an' no mistake. The fire's dyin' as quick as she flared up. Wal, I hope none of the boys got risky to save a saddle or blanket. Monty—he's hell on runnin' the gantlet of fire. He's like a hoss that's jest been dragged out of a burnin' stable an' runs back sure locoed. There! She's smolderin' down now. Reckon we-all might jest as well turn in again. It's only three o'clock."
"I wonder how the fire originated?" remarked Alfred. "Some careless cowboy's cigarette, I'll bet."
Stillwell rolled out his laugh.
"Al, you sure are a free-hearted, trustin' feller. I'm some doubtin' the cigarette idee; but you can gamble if it was a cigarette it belonged to a cunnin' vaquero, an' wasn't dropped accident-like."
"Now, Bill, you don't mean Don Carlos burned the rancho?" ejaculated Alfred, in mingled amaze and anger.
Again the old cattleman laughed.
"Powerful strange to say, my friend, ole Bill means jest thet."
"Of course Don Carlos set that fire," put in Florence, with spirit. "Al, if you live out heah a hundred years you'll never learn that Greasers are treacherous. I know Gene Stewart suspected something underhand. That's why he wanted us to hurry away. That's why he put me on the black horse of Don Carlos's. He wants that horse for himself, and feared the Don would steal or shoot him. And you, Bill Stillwell, you're as bad as Al. You never distrust anybody till it's too late. You've been singing ever since Stewart ordered the vaqueros off the range. But you sure haven't been thinking."
"Wal, now, Flo, you needn't pitch into me jest because I hev a natural Christian spirit," replied Stillwell, much aggrieved. "I reckon I've hed enough trouble in my life so's not to go lookin' fer more. Wal, I'm sorry about the hay burnin'. But mebbe the boys saved the stock. An' as fer that ole adobe house of dark holes an' under-ground passages, so long's Miss Majesty doesn't mind, I'm darn glad it burned. Come, let's all turn in again. Somebody'll ride over early an' tell us what's what."
Madeline awakened early, but not so early as the others, who were up and had breakfast ready when she went into the dining-room. Stillwell was not in an amiable frame of mind. The furrows of worry lined his broad brow and he continually glanced at his watch, and growled because the cowboys were so late in riding over with the news. He gulped his breakfast, and while Madeline and the others ate theirs he tramped up and down the porch. Madeline noted that Alfred grew nervous and restless. Presently he left the table to join Stillwell outside.
"They'll slope off to Don Carlos's rancho and leave us to ride home alone," observed Florence.
"Do you mind?" questioned Madeline.
"No, I don't exactly mind; we've got the fastest horses in this country. I'd like to run that big black devil off his legs. No, I don't mind; but I've no hankering for a situation Gene Stewart thinks—"
Florence began disconnectedly, and she ended evasively. Madeline did not press the point, although she had some sense of misgiving. Stillwell tramped in, shaking the floor with his huge boots; Alfred followed him, carrying a field-glass.
"Not a hoss in sight," complained Stillwell. "Some-thin' wrong over Don Carlos's way. Miss Majesty, it'll be jest as well fer you an' Flo to hit the home trail. We can telephone over an' see that the boys know you're comin'."
Alfred, standing in the door, swept the gray valley with his field-glass.
"Bill, I see running stock-horses or cattle; I can't make out which. I guess we'd better rustle over there."
Both men hurried out, and while the horses were being brought up and saddled Madeline and Florence put away the breakfast-dishes, then speedily donned spurs, sombreros, and gauntlets.
"Here are the horses ready," called Alfred. "Flo, that black Mexican horse is a prince."
The girls went out in time to hear Stillwell's good-by as he mounted and spurred away. Alfred went through the motions of assisting Madeline and Florence to mount, which assistance they always flouted, and then he, too, swung up astride.
"I guess it's all right," he said, rather dubiously. "You really must not go over toward Don Carlos's. It's only a few miles home."
"Sure it's all right. We can ride, can't we?" retorted Florence. "Better have a care for yourself, going off over there to mix in goodness knows what."
Alfred said good-by, spurred his horse, and rode away.
"If Bill didn't forget to telephone!" exclaimed Florence. "I declare he and Al were sure rattled."
Florence dismounted and went into the house. She left the door open. Madeline had some difficulty in holding Majesty. It struck Madeline that Florence stayed rather long indoors. Presently she came out with sober face and rather tight lips.
"I couldn't get anybody on the 'phone. No answer. I tried a dozen times."
"Why, Florence!" Madeline was more concerned by the girl's looks than by the information she imparted.
"The wire's been cut," said Florence. Her gray glance swept swiftly after Alfred, who was now far out of earshot. "I don't like this a little bit. Heah's where I've got to 'figger,' as Bill says."
She pondered a moment, then hurried into the house, to return presently with the field-glass that Alfred had used. With this she took a survey of the valley, particularly in the direction of Madeline's ranch-house. This was hidden by low, rolling ridges which were quite close by.
"Anyway, nobody in that direction can see us leave heah," she mused. "There's mesquite on the ridges. We've got cover long enough to save us till we can see what's ahead."
"Florence, what—what do you expect?" asked Madeline, nervously.
"I don't know. There's never any telling about Greasers. I wish Bill and Al hadn't left us. Still, come to think of that, they couldn't help us much in case of a chase. We'd run right away from them. Besides, they'd shoot. I guess I'm as well as satisfied that we've got the job of getting home on our own hands. We don't dare follow Al toward Don Carlos's ranch. We know there's trouble over there. So all that's left is to hit the trail for home. Come, let's ride. You stick like a Spanish needle to me."
A heavy growth of mesquite covered the top of the first ridge, and the trail went through it. Florence took the lead, proceeding cautiously, and as soon as she could see over the summit she used the field-glass. Then she went on. Madeline, following closely, saw down the slope of the ridge to a bare, wide, grassy hollow, and onward to more rolling land, thick with cactus and mesquite. Florence appeared cautious, deliberate, yet she lost no time. She was ominously silent. Madeline's misgivings took definite shape in the fear of vaqueros in ambush.
Upon the ascent of the third ridge, which Madeline remembered was the last uneven ground between the point she had reached and home, Florence exercised even more guarded care in advancing. Before she reached the top of this ridge she dismounted, looped her bridle round a dead snag, and, motioning Madeline to wait, she slipped ahead through the mesquite out of sight. Madeline waited, anxiously listening and watching. Certain it was that she could not see or hear anything alarming. The sun began to have a touch of heat; the morning breeze rustled the thin mesquite foliage; the deep magenta of a cactus flower caught her eye; a long-tailed, cruel-beaked, brown bird sailed so close to her she could have touched it with her whip. But she was only vaguely aware of these things. She was watching for Florence, listening for some sound fraught with untoward meaning. All of a sudden she saw Majesty's ears were held straight up. Then Florence's face, now strangely white, showed round the turn of the trail.
"'S-s-s-sh!" whispered Florence, holding up a warning finger. She reached the black horse and petted him, evidently to still an uneasiness he manifested. "We're in for it," she went on. "A whole bunch of vaqueros hiding among the mesquite over the ridge! They've not seen or heard us yet. We'd better risk riding ahead, cut off the trail, and beat them to the ranch. Madeline, you're white as death! Don't faint now!"
"I shall not faint. But you frighten me. Is there danger? What shall we do?"
"There's danger. Madeline, I wouldn't deceive you," went on Florence, in an earnest whisper. "Things have turned out just as Gene Stewart hinted. Oh, we should—Al should have listened to Gene! I believe—I'm afraid Gene knew!"
"Knew what?" asked Madeline.
"Never mind now. Listen. We daren't take the back trail. We'll go on. I've a scheme to fool that grinning Don Carlos. Get down, Madeline—hurry."
"Give me your white sweater. Take it off—And that white hat! Hurry, Madeline."
"Florence, what on earth do you mean?" cried Madeline.
"Not so loud," whispered the other. Her gray eyes snapped. She had divested herself of sombrero and jacket, which she held out to Madeline. "Heah. Take these. Give me yours. Then get up on the black. I'll ride Majesty. Rustle now, Madeline. This is no time to talk."
"But, dear, why—why do you want—? Ah! You're going to make the vaqueros take you for me!"
"You guessed it. Will you—"
"I shall not allow you to do anything of the kind," returned Madeline.
It was then that Florence's face, changing, took on the hard, stern sharpness so typical of a cowboy's. Madeline had caught glimpses of that expression in Alfred's face, and on Stewart's when he was silent, and on Stillwell's always. It was a look of iron and fire—unchangeable, unquenchable will. There was even much of violence in the swift action whereby Florence compelled Madeline to the change of apparel.