That was all. Madeline heard the bang of the receiver as Stevens threw it down. She passionately wanted to know more, but was immeasurably grateful for so much! Favorable! Then Stillwell had been successful. Her heart leaped. Suddenly she became weak and her hands failed of their accustomed morning deftness. It took her what seemed a thousand years to dress. Breakfast meant nothing to her except that it helped her to pass dragging minutes.
Finally a low hum, mounting swiftly to a roar and ending with a sharp report, announced the arrival of the car. If her feet had kept pace with her heart she would have raced out to meet Link. She saw him, helmet thrown back, watch in hand, and he looked up at her with his cool, bright smile, with his familiar apologetic manner.
"Fifty-three minutes, Miss Majesty," he said, "but I hed to ride round a herd of steers an' bump a couple off the trail."
He gave her a packet of telegrams. Madeline tore them open with shaking fingers, began to read with swift, dim eyes. Some were from Washington, assuring her of every possible service; some were from New York; others written in Spanish were from El Paso, and these she could not wholly translate in a brief glance. Would she never find Stillwell's message? It was the last. It was lengthy. It read:
Bought Stewart's release. Also arranged for his transfer as prisoner of war. Both matters official. He's safe if we can get notice to his captors. Not sure I've reached them by wire. Afraid to trust it. You go with Link to Agua Prieta. Take the messages sent you in Spanish. They will protect you and secure Stewart's freedom. Take Nels with you. Stop for nothing. Tell Link all—trust him—let him drive that car.
The first few lines of Stillwell's message lifted Madeline to the heights of thanksgiving and happiness. Then, reading on, she experienced a check, a numb, icy, sickening pang. At the last line she flung off doubt and dread, and in white, cold passion faced the issue.
"Read," she said, briefly, handing the telegram to Link. He scanned it and then looked blankly up at her.
"Link, do you know the roads, the trails—the desert between here and Agua Prieta?" she asked.
"Thet's sure my old stampin'-ground. An' I know Sonora, too."
"We must reach Agua Prieta before sunset—long before, so if Stewart is in some near-by camp we can get to it in—in time."
"Miss Majesty, it ain't possible!" he exclaimed. "Stillwell's crazy to say thet."
"Link, can an automobile be driven from here into northern Mexico?"
"Sure. But it 'd take time."
"We must do it in little time," she went on, in swift eagerness. "Otherwise Stewart may be—probably will be—be shot."
Link Stevens appeared suddenly to grow lax, shriveled, to lose all his peculiar pert brightness, to weaken and age.
"I'm only a—a cowboy, Miss Majesty." He almost faltered. It was a singular change in him. "Thet's an awful ride—down over the border. If by some luck I didn't smash the car I'd turn your hair gray. You'd never be no good after thet ride!"
"I am Stewart's wife," she answered him and she looked at him, not conscious of any motive to persuade or allure, but just to let him know the greatness of her dependence upon him.
He started violently—the old action of Stewart, the memorable action of Monty Price. This man was of the same wild breed.
Then Madeline's words flowed in a torrent. "I am Stewart's wife. I love him; I have been unjust to him; I must save him. Link, I have faith in you. I beseech you to do your best for Stewart's sake—for my sake. I'll risk the ride gladly—bravely. I'll not care where or how you drive. I'd far rather plunge into a canyon—go to my death on the rocks—than not try to save Stewart."
How beautiful the response of this rude cowboy—to realize his absolute unconsciousness of self, to see the haggard shade burn out of his face, the old, cool, devil-may-care spirit return to his eyes, and to feel something wonderful about him then! It was more than will or daring or sacrifice. A blood-tie might have existed between him and Madeline. She sensed again that indefinable brother-like quality, so fine, so almost invisible, which seemed to be an inalienable trait in these wild cowboys.
"Miss Majesty, thet ride figgers impossible, but I'll do it!" he replied. His cool, bright glance thrilled her. "I'll need mebbe half an hour to go over the car an' to pack on what I'll want."
She could not thank him, and her reply was merely a request that he tell Nels and other cowboys off duty to come up to the house. When Link had gone Madeline gave a moment's thought to preparations for the ride. She placed what money she had and the telegrams in a satchel. The gown she had on was thin and white, not suitable for travel, but she would not risk the losing of one moment in changing it. She put on a long coat and wound veils round her head and neck, arranging them in a hood so she could cover her face when necessary. She remembered to take an extra pair of goggles for Nels's use, and then, drawing on her gloves, she went out ready for the ride.
A number of cowboys were waiting. She explained the situation and left them in charge of her home. With that she asked Nels to accompany her down into the desert. He turned white to his lips, and this occasioned Madeline to remember his mortal dread of the car and Link's driving.
"Nels, I'm sorry to ask you," she added. "I know you hate the car. But I need you—may need you, oh! so much."
"Why, Miss Majesty, thet's shore all a mistaken idee of yours about me hatin' the car," he said, in his slow, soft drawl. "I was only jealous of Link; an' the boys, they made thet joke up on me about bein' scared of ridin' fast. Shore I'm powerful proud to go. An' I reckon if you hedn't asked me my feelin's might hev been some hurt. Because if you're goin' down among the Greasers you want me."
His cool, easy speech, his familiar swagger, the smile with which he regarded her did not in the least deceive Madeline. The gray was still in his face. Incomprehensible as it seemed, Nels had a dread, an uncanny fear, and it was of that huge white automobile. But he lied about it. Here again was that strange quality of faithfulness.
Madeline heard the buzz of the car. Link appeared driving up the slope. He made a short, sliding turn and stopped before the porch. Link had tied two long, heavy planks upon the car, one on each side, and in every available space he had strapped extra tires. A huge cask occupied one back seat, and another seat was full of tools and ropes. There was just room in this rear part of the car for Nels to squeeze in. Link put Madeline in front beside him, then bent over the wheel. Madeline waved her hand at the silent cowboys on the porch. Not an audible good-by was spoken.
The car glided out of the yard, leaped from level to slope, and started swiftly down the road, out into the open valley. Each stronger rush of dry wind in Madeline's face marked the increase of speed. She took one glance at the winding cattle-road, smooth, unobstructed, disappearing in the gray of distance. She took another at the leather-garbed, leather-helmeted driver beside her, and then she drew the hood of veils over her face and fastened it round her neck so there was no possibility of its blowing loose.
Harder and stronger pressed the wind till it was like sheeted lead forcing her back in her seat. There was a ceaseless, intense, inconceivably rapid vibration under her; occasionally she felt a long swing, as if she were to be propelled aloft; but no jars disturbed the easy celerity of the car. The buzz, the roar of wheels, of heavy body in flight, increased to a continuous droning hum. The wind became an insupportable body moving toward her, crushing her breast, making the task of breathing most difficult. To Madeline the time seemed to fly with the speed of miles. A moment came when she detected a faint difference in hum and rush and vibration, in the ceaseless sweeping of the invisible weight against her. This difference became marked. Link was reducing speed. Then came swift change of all sensation, and she realized the car had slowed to normal travel.
Madeline removed her hood and goggles. It was a relief to breathe freely, to be able to use her eyes. To her right, not far distant, lay the little town of Chiricahua. Sight of it made her remember Stewart in a way strange to her constant thought of him. To the left inclined the gray valley. The red desert was hidden from view, but the Guadalupe Mountains loomed close in the southwest.
Opposite Chiricahua, where the road forked, Link Stevens headed the car straight south and gradually increased speed. Madeline faced another endless gray incline. It was the San Bernardino Valley. The singing of the car, the stinging of the wind warned her to draw the hood securely down over her face again, and then it was as if she was riding at night. The car lurched ahead, settled into that driving speed which wedged Madeline back as in a vise. Again the moments went by fleet as the miles. Seemingly, there was an acceleration of the car till it reached a certain swiftness—a period of time in which it held that pace, and then a diminishing of all motion and sound which contributed to Madeline's acute sensation. Uncovering her face, she saw Link was passing another village. Could it be Bernardino? She asked Link—repeated the question.
"Sure," he replied. "Eighty miles."
Link did not this time apologize for the work of his machine. Madeline marked the omission with her first thrill of the ride. Leaning over, she glanced at Link's watch, which he had fastened upon the wheel in front of his eyes. A quarter to ten! Link had indeed made short work of the valley miles.
Beyond Bernardino Link sheered off the road and put the car to a long, low-rising slope. Here the valley appeared to run south under the dark brows of the Guadalupes. Link was heading southwest. Madeline observed that the grass began to fail as they climbed the ridge; bare, white, dusty spots appeared; there were patches of mesquite and cactus and scattering areas of broken rock.
She might have been prepared for what she saw from the ridge-top. Beneath them the desert blazed. Seen from afar, it was striking enough, but riding down into its red jaws gave Madeline the first affront to her imperious confidence. All about her ranch had been desert, the valleys were desert; but this was different. Here began the red desert, extending far into Mexico, far across Arizona and California to the Pacific. She saw a bare, hummocky ridge, down which the car was gliding, bounding, swinging, and this long slant seemed to merge into a corrugated world of rock and sand, patched by flats and basins, streaked with canyons and ranges of ragged, saw-toothed stone. The distant Sierra Madres were clearer, bluer, less smoky and suggestive of mirage than she had ever seen them. Madeline's sustaining faith upheld her in the face of this appalling obstacle. Then the desert that had rolled its immensity beneath her gradually began to rise, to lose its distant margins, to condense its varying lights and shades, at last to hide its yawning depths and looming heights behind red ridges, which were only little steps, little outposts, little landmarks at its gates.
The bouncing of the huge car, throwing Madeline up, directed her attention and fastened it upon the way Link Stevens was driving and upon the immediate foreground. Then she discovered that he was following an old wagon-road. At the foot of that long slope they struck into rougher ground, and here Link took to a cautious zigzag course. The wagon-road disappeared and then presently reappeared. But Link did not always hold to it. He made cuts, detours, crosses, and all the time seemed to be getting deeper into a maze of low, red dunes, of flat canyon-beds lined by banks of gravel, of ridges mounting higher. Yet Link Stevens kept on and never turned back. He never headed into a place that he could not pass. Up to this point of travel he had not been compelled to back the car, and Madeline began to realize that it was the cowboy's wonderful judgment of ground that made advance possible. He knew the country; he was never at a loss; after making a choice of direction, he never hesitated.
Then at the bottom of a wide canyon he entered a wash where the wheels just barely turned in dragging sand. The sun beat down white-hot, the dust arose, there was not a breath of wind; and no sound save the slide of a rock now and then down the weathered slopes and the labored chugging of the machine. The snail pace, like the sand at the wheels, began to drag at Madeline's faith. Link gave over the wheel to Madeline, and, leaping out, he called Nels. When they untied the long planks and laid them straight in front for the wheels to pass over Madeline saw how wise had been Link's forethought. With the aid of those planks they worked the car through sand and gravel otherwise impossible to pass.
This canyon widened and opened into space affording an unobstructed view for miles. The desert sloped up in steps, and in the morning light, with the sun bright on the mesas and escarpments, it was gray, drab, stone, slate, yellow, pink, and, dominating all, a dull rust-red. There was level ground ahead, a wind-swept floor as hard as rock. Link rushed the car over this free distance. Madeline's ears filled with a droning hum like the sound of a monstrous, hungry bee and with a strange, incessant crinkle which she at length guessed to be the spreading of sheets of gravel from under the wheels. The giant car attained such a speed that Madeline could only distinguish the colored landmarks to the fore, and these faded as the wind stung her eyes.
Then Link began the ascent of the first step, a long, sweeping, barren waste with dunes of wonderful violet and heliotrope hues. Here were well-defined marks of an old wagon-road lately traversed by cattle. The car climbed steadily, surmounted the height, faced another long bench that had been cleaned smooth by desert winds. The sky was an intense, light, steely blue, hard on the eyes. Madeline veiled her face, and did not uncover it until Link had reduced the racing speed. From the summit of the next ridge she saw more red ruin of desert.
A deep wash crossing the road caused Link Stevens to turn due south. There was a narrow space along the wash just wide enough for the car. Link seemed oblivious to the fact that the outside wheels were perilously close to the edge. Madeline heard the rattle of loosened gravel and earth sliding into the gully. The wash widened and opened out into a sandy flat. Link crossed this and turned up on the opposite side. Rocks impeded the progress of the car, and these had to be rolled out of the way. The shelves of silt, apparently ready to slide with the slightest weight, the little tributary washes, the boulder-strewn stretches of slope, the narrow spaces allowing no more than a foot for the outside wheels, the spear-pointed cactus that had to be avoided—all these obstacles were as nothing to the cowboy driver. He kept on, and when he came to the road again he made up for the lost time by speed.
Another height was reached, and here Madeline fancied that Link had driven the car to the summit of a high pass between two mountain ranges. The western slope of that pass appeared to be exceedingly rough and broken. Below it spread out another gray valley, at the extreme end of which glistened a white spot that Link grimly called Douglas. Part of that white spot was Agua Prieta, the sister town across the line. Madeline looked with eyes that would fain have pierced the intervening distance.
The descent of the pass began under difficulties. Sharp stones and cactus spikes penetrated the front tires, bursting them with ripping reports. It took time to replace them. The planks were called into requisition to cross soft places. A jagged point of projecting rock had to be broken with a sledge. At length a huge stone appeared to hinder any further advance. Madeline caught her breath. There was no room to turn the car. But Link Stevens had no intention of such a thing. He backed the car to a considerable distance, then walked forward. He appeared to be busy around the boulder for a moment and returned down the road on the run. A heavy explosion, a cloud of dust, and a rattle of falling fragments told Madeline that her indomitable driver had cleared a passage with dynamite. He seemed to be prepared for every emergency. Madeline looked to see what effect the discovery of Link carrying dynamite would have upon the silent Nels.
"Shore, now, Miss Majesty, there ain't nothin' goin' to stop Link," said Nels, with a reassuring smile. The significance of the incident had not dawned upon Nels, or else he was heedless of it. After all, he was afraid only of the car and Link, and that fear was an idiosyncrasy. Madeline began to see her cowboy driver with clearer eyes and his spirit awoke something in her that made danger of no moment. Nels likewise subtly responded, and, though he was gray-faced, tight-lipped, his eyes took on the cool, bright gleam of Link's.
Cactus barred the way, rocks barred the way, gullies barred the way, and these Nels addressed in the grim humor with which he was wont to view tragic things. A mistake on Link's part, a slip of a wheel, a bursting of a tire at a critical moment, an instant of the bad luck which might happen a hundred times on a less perilous ride—any one of these might spell disaster for the car, perhaps death to the occupants. Again and again Link used the planks to cross washes in sand. Sometimes the wheels ran all the length of the planks, sometimes slipped off. Presently Link came to a ditch where water had worn deep into the road. Without hesitation he placed them, measuring distance carefully, and then started across. The danger was in ditching the machine. One of the planks split, sagged a little, but Link made the crossing without a slip.
The road led round under an overhanging cliff and was narrow, rocky, and slightly downhill. Bidding Madeline and Nels walk round this hazardous corner, Link drove the car. Madeline expected to hear it crash down into the canyon, but presently she saw Link waiting to take them aboard again. Then came steeper parts of the road, places that Link could run down if he had space below to control the car, and on the other hand places where the little inclines ended in abrupt ledges upon one side or a declivity upon the other. Here the cowboy, with ropes on the wheels and half-hitches upon the spurs of rock, let the car slide down.
Once at a particularly bad spot Madeline exclaimed involuntarily, "Oh, time is flying!" Link Stevens looked up at her as if he had been reproved for his care. His eyes shone like the glint of steel on ice. Perhaps that utterance of Madeline's was needed to liberate his recklessness to its utmost. Certainly he put the car to seemingly impossible feats. He rimmed gullies, he hurdled rising ground, he leaped little breaks in the even road. He made his machine cling like a goat to steep inclines; he rounded corners with the inside wheels higher than the outside; he passed over banks of soft earth that caved in the instant he crossed weak places. He kept on and on, threading tortuous passages through rock-strewn patches, keeping to the old road where it was clear, abandoning it for open spaces, and always going down.
At length a mile of clean, brown slope, ridged and grooved like a washboard, led gently down to meet the floor of the valley, where the scant grama-grass struggled to give a tinge of gray. The road appeared to become more clearly defined, and could be seen striking straight across the valley.
To Madeline's dismay, that road led down to a deep, narrow wash. It plunged on one side, ascended on the other at a still steeper angle. The crossing would have been laborsome for a horse; for an automobile it was unpassable. Link turned the car to the right along the rim and drove as far along the wash as the ground permitted. The gully widened, deepened all the way. Then he took the other direction. When he made this turn Madeline observed that the sun had perceptibly begun its slant westward. It shone in her face, glaring and wrathful. Link drove back to the road, crossed it, and kept on down the line of the wash. It was a deep cut in red earth, worn straight down by swift water in the rainy seasons. It narrowed. In some places it was only five feet wide. Link studied these points and looked up the slope, and seemed to be making deductions. The valley was level now, and there were nothing but little breaks in the rim of the wash. Link drove mile after mile, looking for a place to cross, and there was none. Finally progress to the south was obstructed by impassable gullies where the wash plunged into the head of a canyon. It was necessary to back the car a distance before there was room to turn. Madeline looked at the imperturbable driver. His face revealed no more than the same old hard, immutable character. When he reached the narrowest points, which had so interested him, he got out of the car and walked from place to place. Once with a little jump he cleared the wash. Then Madeline noted that the farther rim was somewhat lower. In a flash she divined Link's intention. He was hunting a place to jump the car over the crack in the ground.
Soon he found one that seemed to suit him, for he tied his red scarf upon a greasewood-bush. Then, returning to the car, he clambered in, and, muttering, broke his long silence: "This ain't no air-ship, but I've outfiggered thet damn wash." He backed up the gentle slope and halted just short of steeper ground. His red scarf waved in the wind. Hunching low over the wheel, he started, slowly at first, then faster, and then faster. The great car gave a spring like a huge tiger. The impact of suddenly formed wind almost tore Madeline out of her seat. She felt Nels's powerful hands on her shoulders. She closed her eyes. The jolting headway of the car gave place to a gliding rush. This was broken by a slight jar, and then above the hum and roar rose a cowboy yell. Madeline waited with strained nerves for the expected crash. It did not come. Opening her eyes, she saw the level valley floor without a break. She had not even noticed the instant when the car had shot over the wash.
A strange breathlessness attacked her, and she attributed it to the celerity with which she was being carried along. Pulling the hood down over her face, she sank low in the seat. The whir of the car now seemed to be a world-filling sound. Again the feeling of excitement, the poignancy of emotional heights, the ever-present impending sense of catastrophe became held in abeyance to the sheer intensity of physical sensations. There came a time when all her strength seemed to unite in an effort to lift her breast against the terrific force of the wind—to draw air into her flattened lungs. She became partly dazed. The darkness before her eyes was not all occasioned by the blood that pressed like a stone mask on her face. She had a sense that she was floating, sailing, drifting, reeling, even while being borne swiftly as a thunderbolt. Her hands and arms were immovable under the weight of mountains. There was a long, blank period from which she awakened to feel an arm supporting her. Then she rallied. The velocity of the car had been cut to the speed to which she was accustomed. Throwing back the hood, she breathed freely again, recovered fully.
The car was bowling along a wide road upon the outskirts of a city. Madeline asked what place it could be.
"Douglas," replied Link. "An' jest around is Agua Prieta!"
That last name seemed to stun Madeline. She heard no more, and saw little until the car stopped. Nels spoke to some one. Then sight of khaki-clad soldiers quickened Madeline's faculties. She was on the boundary-line between the United States and Mexico, and Agua Prieta, with its white and blue walled houses, its brown-tiled roofs, lay before her. A soldier, evidently despatched by Nels, returned and said an officer would come at once. Madeline's attention was centered in the foreground, upon the guard over the road, upon the dry, dusty town beyond; but she was aware of noise and people in the rear. A cavalry officer approached the car, stared, and removed his sombrero.
"Can you tell me anything about Stewart, the American cowboy who was captured by rebels a few days ago?" asked Madeline.
"Yes," replied the officer. "There was a skirmish over the line between a company of Federals and a large force of guerrillas and rebels. The Federals were driven west along the line. Stewart is reported to have done reckless fighting and was captured. He got a Mexican sentence. He is known here along the border, and the news of his capture stirred up excitement. We did all we could to get his release. The guerrillas feared to execute him here, and believed he might be aided to escape. So a detachment departed with him for Mezquital."
"He was sentenced to be shot Thursday at sunset—to-night?"
"Yes. It was rumored there was a personal resentment against Stewart. I regret that I can't give you definite information. If you are friends of Stewart—relatives—I might find—"
"I am his wife," interrupted Madeline. "Will you please read these." She handed him the telegrams. "Advise me—help me, if you can?"
With a wondering glance at her the officer received the telegrams. He read several, and whistled low in amaze. His manner became quick, alert, serious.
"I can't read these written in Spanish, but I know the names signed." Swiftly he ran through the others.
"Why, these mean Stewart's release has been authorized. They explain mysterious rumors we have heard here. Greaser treachery! For some strange reason messages from the rebel junta have failed to reach their destination. We heard reports of an exchange for Stewart, but nothing came of it. No one departed for Mezquital with authority. What an outrage! Come, I'll go with you to General Salazar, the rebel chief in command. I know him. Perhaps we can find out something."
Nels made room for the officer. Link sent the car whirring across the line into Mexican territory. Madeline's sensibilities were now exquisitely alive. The white road led into Agua Prieta, a town of colored walls and roofs. Goats and pigs and buzzards scattered before the roar of the machine. Native women wearing black mantles peeped through iron-barred windows. Men wearing huge sombreros, cotton shirts and trousers, bright sashes round their waists, and sandals, stood motionless, watching the car go by. The road ended in an immense plaza, in the center of which was a circular structure that in some measure resembled a corral. It was a bull-ring, where the national sport of bull-fighting was carried on. Just now it appeared to be quarters for a considerable army. Ragged, unkempt rebels were everywhere, and the whole square was littered with tents, packs, wagons, arms. There were horses, mules, burros, and oxen.
The place was so crowded that Link was compelled to drive slowly up to the entrance to the bull-ring. Madeline caught a glimpse of tents inside, then her view was obstructed by a curious, pressing throng. The cavalry officer leaped from the car and pushed his way into the entrance.
"Link, do you know the road to this Mezquital?" asked Madeline.
"Yes. I've been there."
"How far is it?"
"Aw, not so very far," he mumbled.
"Link! How many miles?" she implored.
"I reckon only a few."
Madeline knew that he lied. She asked him no more; nor looked at him, nor at Nels. How stifling was this crowded, ill-smelling plaza! The sun, red and lowering, had sloped far down in the west, but still burned with furnace heat. A swarm of flies whirled over the car. The shadows of low-sailing buzzards crossed Madeline's sight. Then she saw a row of the huge, uncanny black birds sitting upon the tiled roof of a house. They had neither an air of sleeping nor resting. They were waiting. She fought off a horrible ghastly idea before its full realization. These rebels and guerrillas—what lean, yellow, bearded wretches! They curiously watched Link as he went working over the car. No two were alike, and all were ragged. They had glittering eyes sunk deep in their heads. They wore huge sombreros of brown and black felt, of straw, of cloth. Every man wore a belt or sash into which was thrust some kind of weapon. Some wore boots, some shoes, some moccasins, some sandals, and many were barefooted. They were an excited, jabbering, gesticulating mob. Madeline shuddered to think how a frenzy to spill blood could run through these poor revolutionists. If it was liberty they fought for, they did not show the intelligence in their faces. They were like wolves upon a scent. They affronted her, shocked her. She wondered if their officers were men of the same class. What struck her at last and stirred pity in her was the fact that every man of the horde her swift glance roamed over, however dirty and bedraggled he was, wore upon him some ornament, some tassel or fringe or lace, some ensign, some band, bracelet, badge, or belt, some twist of scarf, something that betrayed the vanity which was the poor jewel of their souls. It was in the race.
Suddenly the crowd parted to let the cavalry officer and a rebel of striking presence get to the car.
"Madam, it is as I suspected," said the officer, quickly. "The messages directing Stewart's release never reached Salazar. They were intercepted. But even without them we might have secured Stewart's exchange if it had not been for the fact that one of his captors wanted him shot. This guerrilla intercepted the orders, and then was instrumental in taking Stewart to Mezquital. It is exceedingly sad. Why, he should be a free man this instant. I regret—"
"Who did this—this thing?" cried Madeline, cold and sick. "Who is the guerrilla?"
"Senor Don Carlos Martinez. He has been a bandit, a man of influence in Sonora. He is more of a secret agent in the affairs of the revolution than an active participator. But he has seen guerrilla service."
"Don Carlos! Stewart in his power! O God!" Madeline sank down, almost overcome. Then two great hands, powerful, thrilling, clasped her shoulders, and Nels bent over her.
"Miss Majesty, shore we're wastin' time here," he said. His voice, like his hands, was uplifting. She wheeled to him in trembling importunity. How cold, bright, blue the flash of his eyes! They told Madeline she must not weaken. But she could not speak her thought to Nels—could only look at Link.
"It figgers impossible, but I'll do it!" said Link Stevens, in answer to her voiceless query. The cold, grim, wild something about her cowboys blanched Madeline's face, steeled her nerve, called to the depths of her for that last supreme courage of a woman. The spirit of the moment was nature with Link and Nels; with her it must be passion.
"Can I get a permit to go into the interior—to Mezquital?" asked Madeline of the officer.
"You are going on? Madam, it's a forlorn hope. Mezquital is a hundred miles away. But there's a chance—the barest chance if your man can drive this car. The Mexicans are either murderous or ceremonious in their executions. The arrangements for Stewart's will be elaborate. But, barring unusual circumstances, it will take place precisely at the hour designated. You need no permit. Your messages are official papers. But to save time, perhaps delay, I suggest you take this Mexican, Senor Montes, with you. He outranks Don Carlos and knows the captain of the Mezquital detachment."
"Ah! Then Don Carlos is not in command of the forces holding Stewart?"
"I thank you, sir. I shall not forget your kindness," concluded Madeline.
She bowed to Senor Montes, and requested him to enter the car. Nels stowed some of the paraphernalia away, making room in the rear seat. Link bent over the wheel. The start was so sudden, with such crack and roar, that the crowd split in wild disorder. Out of the plaza the car ran, gathering headway; down a street lined by white and blue walls; across a square where rebels were building barricades; along a railroad track full of iron flat-cars that carried mounted pieces of artillery; through the outlying guards, who waved to the officer, Montes.
Madeline bound her glasses tightly over her eyes, and wound veils round the lower part of her face. She was all in a strange glow, she had begun to burn, to throb, to thrill, to expand, and she meant to see all that was possible. The sullen sun, red as fire, hung over the mountain range in the west. How low it had sunk! Before her stretched a narrow, white road, dusty, hard as stone—a highway that had been used for centuries. If it had been wide enough to permit passing a vehicle it would have been a magnificent course for automobiles. But the weeds and the dusty flowers and the mesquite boughs and arms of cactus brushed the car as it sped by.
Faster, faster, faster! That old resistless weight began to press Madeline back; the old incessant bellow of wind filled her ears. Link Stevens hunched low over the wheel. His eyes were hidden under leather helmet and goggles, but the lower part of his face was unprotected. He resembled a demon, so dark and stone-hard and strangely grinning was he. All at once Madeline realized how matchless, how wonderful a driver was this cowboy. She divined that weakening could not have been possible to Link Stevens. He was a cowboy, and he really was riding that car, making it answer to his will, as it had been born in him to master a horse. He had never driven to suit himself, had never reached an all-satisfying speed until now. Beyond that his motive was to save Stewart—to make Madeline happy. Life was nothing to him. That fact gave him the superhuman nerve to face the peril of this ride. Because of his disregard of self he was able to operate the machine, to choose the power, the speed, the guidance, the going with the best judgment and highest efficiency possible. Madeline knew he would get her to Mezquital in time to save Stewart or he would kill her in the attempt.
The white, narrow road flashed out of the foreground, slipped with inconceivable rapidity under the car. When she marked a clump of cactus far ahead it seemed to shoot at her, to speed behind her even the instant she noticed it. Nevertheless, Madeline knew Link was not putting the car to its limit. Swiftly as he was flying, he held something in reserve. But he took the turns of the road as if he knew the way was cleared before him. He trusted to a cowboy's luck. A wagon in one of those curves, a herd of cattle, even a frightened steer, meant a wreck. Madeline never closed her eyes at these fateful moments. If Link could stake himself, the others, and her upon such chance, what could not she stake with her motive? So while the great car hummed and thrummed, and darted round the curves on two wheels, and sped on like a bullet, Madeline lived that ride, meant to feel it to the uttermost.
But it was not all swift going. A stretch of softer ground delayed Link, made the car labor and pant and pound and grind through gravel. Moreover, the cactus plants assumed an alarming ability to impede progress. Long, slender arms of the ocotillo encroached upon the road; broad, round leaves did likewise; fluted columns, fallen like timbers in a forest, lay along the narrow margins; the bayonet cactus and the bisnagi leaned threateningly; clusters of maguey, shadowed by the huge, looming saguaro, infringed upon the highway to Mezquital. And every leaf and blade and branch of cactus bore wicked thorns, any one of which would be fatal to a tire.
It came at length, the bursting report. The car lurched, went on like a crippled thing, and halted, obedient to the master hand at the wheel. Swift as Link was in replacing the tire, he lost time. The red sun, more sullen, duskier as it neared the black, bold horizon, appeared to mock Madeline, to eye her in derision.
Link leaped in, and the car sprang ahead. The road-bed changed, the trees changed—all the surroundings changed except the cactus. There were miles of rolling ridges, rough in the hollows, and short rocky bits of road, and washes to cross, and a low, sandy swale where mesquites grouped a forest along a trickling inch-deep sheet of water. Green things softened the hard, dry aspect of the desert. There were birds and parrots and deer and wild boars. All these Madeline remarked with clear eyes, with remarkable susceptibility of attention; but what she strained to see, what she yearned for, prayed for, was straight, unobstructed road.
But the road began to wind up; it turned and twisted in tantalizing lazy curves; it was in no hurry to surmount a hill that began to assume proportions of a mountain; it was leisurely, as were all things in Mexico except strife. That was quick, fierce, bloody—it was Spanish.
The descent from that elevation was difficult, extremely hazardous, yet Link Stevens drove fast. At the base of the hill rocks and sand all but halted him for good. Then in taking an abrupt curve a grasping spear ruined another tire. This time the car rasped across the road into the cactus, bursting the second front-wheel tire. Like demons indeed Link and Nels worked. Shuddering, Madeline felt the declining heat of the sun, saw with gloomy eyes the shading of the red light over the desert. She did not look back to see how near the sun was to the horizon. She wanted to ask Nels. Strange as anything on this terrible ride was the absence of speech. As yet no word had been spoken. Madeline wanted to shriek to Link to hurry. But he was more than humanly swift in all his actions. So with mute lips, with the fire in her beginning to chill, with a lifelessness menacing her spirit, she watched, hoped against hope, prayed for a long, straight, smooth road.
Quite suddenly she saw it, seemingly miles of clear, narrow lane disappearing like a thin, white streak in distant green. Perhaps Link Stevens's heart leaped like Madeline's. The huge car with a roar and a jerk seemed to answer Madeline's call, a cry no less poignant because it was silent.
Faster, faster, faster! The roar became a whining hum. Then for Madeline sound ceased to be anything—she could not hear. The wind was now heavy, imponderable, no longer a swift, plastic thing, but solid, like an on-rushing wall. It bore down upon Madeline with such resistless weight that she could not move. The green of desert plants along the road merged in two shapeless fences, sliding at her from the distance. Objects ahead began to blur the white road, to grow streaky, like rays of light, the sky to take on more of a reddening haze.
Madeline, realizing her sight was failing her, turned for one more look at Link Stevens. It had come to be his ride almost as much as it was hers. He hunched lower than ever, rigid, strained to the last degree, a terrible, implacable driver. This was his hour, and he was great. If he so much as brushed a flying tire against one of the millions of spikes clutching out, striking out from the cactus, there would be a shock, a splitting wave of air—an end. Madeline thought she saw that Link's bulging cheek and jaw were gray, that his tight-shut lips were white, that the smile was gone. Then he really was human—not a demon. She felt a strange sense of brotherhood. He understood a woman's soul as Monty Price had understood it. Link was the lightning-forged automaton, the driving, relentless, unconquerable instrument of a woman's will. He was a man whose force was directed by a woman's passion. He reached up to her height, felt her love, understood the nature of her agony. These made him heroic. But it was the hard life, the wild years of danger on the desert, the companionship of ruthless men, the elemental, that made possible his physical achievement. Madeline loved his spirit then and gloried in the man.
She had pictured upon her heart, never to be forgotten, this little hunched, deformed figure of Link's hanging with dauntless, with deathless grip over the wheel, his gray face like a marble mask.
That was Madeline's last clear sensation upon the ride. Blinded, dazed, she succumbed to the demands upon her strength. She reeled, fell back, only vaguely aware of a helping hand. Confusion seized her senses. All about her was a dark chaos through which she was rushing, rushing, rushing under the wrathful red eye of a setting sun. Then, as there was no more sound or sight for her, she felt there was no color. But the rush never slackened—a rush through opaque, limitless space. For moments, hours, ages she was propelled with the velocity of a shooting-star. The earth seemed a huge automobile. And it sped with her down an endless white track through the universe. Looming, ghostly, ghastly, spectral forms of cacti plants, large as pine-trees, stabbed her with giant spikes. She became an unstable being in a shapeless, colorless, soundless cosmos of unrelated things, but always rushing, even to meet the darkness that haunted her and never reached her.
But at an end of infinite time that rush ceased. Madeline lost the queer feeling of being disembodied by a frightfully swift careening through boundless distance. She distinguished voices, low at first, apparently far away. Then she opened her eyes to blurred but conscious sight.
The car had come to a stop. Link was lying face down over the wheel. Nels was rubbing her hands, calling to her. She saw a house with clean whitewashed wall and brown-tiled roof. Beyond, over a dark mountain range, peeped the last red curve, the last beautiful ray of the setting sun.
XXV. At the End of the Road
Madeline saw that the car was surrounded by armed Mexicans. They presented a contrast to the others she had seen that day; she wondered a little at their silence, at their respectful front.
Suddenly a sharp spoken order opened up the ranks next to the house. Senor Montes appeared in the break, coming swiftly. His dark face wore a smile; his manner was courteous, important, authoritative.
"Senora, it is not too late!"
He spoke her language with an accent strange to her, so that it seemed to hinder understanding.
"Senora, you got here in time," he went on. "El Capitan Stewart will be free."
"Free!" she whispered.
She rose, reeling.
"Come," replied Montes, taking her arm. "Perdoneme, Senora."
Without his assistance she would have fallen wholly upon Nels, who supported her on the other side. They helped her alight from the car. For a moment the white walls, the hazy red sky, the dark figures of the rebels, whirled before Madeline's eyes. She took a few steps, swaying between her escorts; then the confusion of her sight and mind passed away. It was as if she quickened with a thousand vivifying currents, as if she could see and hear and feel everything in the world, as if nothing could be overlooked, forgotten, neglected.
She turned back, remembering Link. He was lurching from the car, helmet and goggles thrust back, the gray shade gone from his face, the cool, bright gleam of his eyes disappearing for something warmer.
Senor Montes led Madeline and her cowboys through a hall to a patio, and on through a large room with flooring of rough, bare boards that rattled, into a smaller room full of armed quiet rebels facing an open window.
Madeline scanned the faces of these men, expecting to see Don Carlos. But he was not present. A soldier addressed her in Spanish too swiftly uttered, too voluble for her to translate. But, like Senor Montes, he was gracious and, despite his ragged garb and uncouth appearance, he bore the unmistakable stamp of authority.
Montes directed Madeline's attention to a man by the window. A loose scarf of vivid red hung from his hand.
"Senora, they were waiting for the sun to set when we arrived," said Montes. "The signal was about to be given for Senor Stewart's walk to death."
"Stewart's walk!" echoed Madeline.
"Ah, Senora, let me tell you his sentence—the sentence I have had the honor and happiness to revoke for you."
Stewart had been court-martialed and sentenced according to a Mexican custom observed in cases of brave soldiers to whom honorable and fitting executions were due. His hour had been set for Thursday when the sun had sunk. Upon signal he was to be liberated and was free to walk out into the road, to take any direction he pleased. He knew his sentence; knew that death awaited him, that every possible avenue of escape was blocked by men with rifles ready. But he had not the slightest idea at what moment or from what direction the bullets were to come.
"Senora, we have sent messengers to every squad of waiting soldiers—an order that El Capitan is not to be shot. He is ignorant of his release. I shall give the signal for his freedom."
Montes was ceremonious, gallant, emotional. Madeline saw his pride, and divined that the situation was one which brought out the vanity, the ostentation, as well as the cruelty of his race. He would keep her in an agony of suspense, let Stewart start upon that terrible walk in ignorance of his freedom. It was the motive of a Spaniard. Suddenly Madeline had a horrible quaking fear that Montes lied, that he meant her to be a witness of Stewart's execution. But no, the man was honest; he was only barbarous. He would satisfy certain instincts of his nature—sentiment, romance, cruelty—by starting Stewart upon that walk, by watching Stewart's actions in the face of seeming death, by seeing Madeline's agony of doubt, fear, pity, love. Almost Madeline felt that she could not endure the situation. She was weak and tottering.
"Senora! Ah, it will be one beautiful thing!" Montes caught the scarf from the rebel's hand. He was glowing, passionate; his eyes had a strange, soft, cold flash; his voice was low, intense. He was living something splendid to him. "I'll wave the scarf, Senora. That will be the signal. It will be seen down at the other end of the road. Senor Stewart's jailer will see the signal, take off Stewart's irons, release him, open the door for his walk. Stewart will be free. But he will not know. He will expect death. As he is a brave man, he will face it. He will walk this way. Every step of that walk he will expect to be shot from some unknown quarter. But he will not be afraid. Senora, I have seen El Captain fighting in the field. What is death to him? Ah, will it not be magnificent to see him come forth—to walk down? Senora, you will see what a man he is. All the way he will expect cold, swift death. Here at this end of the road he will meet his beautiful lady!"
"Is there no—no possibility of a mistake?" faltered Madeline.
"None. My order included unloading of rifles."
"He is in irons, and must answer to General Salazar," replied Montes.
Madeline looked down the deserted road. How strange to see the last ruddy glow of the sun over the brow of the mountain range! The thought of that sunset had been torture for her. Yet it had passed, and now the afterlights were luminous, beautiful, prophetic.
With a heart stricken by both joy and agony, she saw Montes wave the scarf.
Then she waited. No change manifested itself down the length of that lonely road. There was absolute silence in the room behind her. How terribly, infinitely long seemed the waiting! Never in all her future life would she forget the quaint pink, blue, and white walled houses with their colored roofs. That dusty bare road resembled one of the uncovered streets of Pompeii with its look of centuries of solitude.
Suddenly a door opened and a tall man stepped out.
Madeline recognized Stewart. She had to place both hands on the window-sill for support, while a storm of emotion swayed her. Like a retreating wave it rushed away. Stewart lived. He was free. He had stepped out into the light. She had saved him. Life changed for her in that instant of realization and became sweet, full, strange.
Stewart shook hands with some one in the doorway. Then he looked up and down the road. The door closed behind him. Leisurely he rolled a cigarette, stood close to the wall while he scratched a match. Even at that distance Madeline's keen eyes caught the small flame, the first little puff of smoke.
Stewart then took to the middle of the road and leisurely began his walk.
To Madeline he appeared natural, walked as unconcernedly as if he were strolling for pleasure; but the absence of any other living thing, the silence, the red haze, the surcharged atmosphere—these were all unnatural. From time to time Stewart stopped to turn face forward toward houses and corners. Only silence greeted these significant moves of his. Once he halted to roll and light another cigarette. After that his step quickened.
Madeline watched him, with pride, love, pain, glory combating for a mastery over her. This walk of his seemingly took longer than all her hours of awakening, of strife, of remorse, longer than the ride to find him. She felt that it would be impossible for her to wait till he reached the end of the road. Yet in the hurry and riot of her feelings she had fleeting panics. What could she say to him? How meet him? Well she remembered the tall, powerful form now growing close enough to distinguish its dress. Stewart's face was yet only a dark gleam. Soon she would see it—long before he could know she was there. She wanted to run to meet him. Nevertheless, she stood rooted to her covert behind the window, living that terrible walk with him to the uttermost thought of home, sister, mother, sweetheart, wife, life itself—every thought that could come to a man stalking to meet his executioners. With all that tumult in her mind and heart Madeline still fell prey to the incomprehensible variations of emotion possible to a woman. Every step Stewart took thrilled her. She had some strange, subtle intuition that he was not unhappy, and that he believed beyond shadow of doubt that he was walking to his death. His steps dragged a little, though they had begun to be swift. The old, hard, physical, wild nerve of the cowboy was perhaps in conflict with spiritual growth of the finer man, realizing too late that life ought not to be sacrificed.
Then the dark gleam that was his face took shape, grew sharper and clearer. He was stalking now, and there was a suggestion of impatience in his stride. It took these hidden Mexicans a long time to kill him! At a point in the middle of the road, even with the corner of a house and opposite to Madeline's position, Stewart halted stock-still. He presented a fair, bold mark to his executioners, and he stood there motionless a full moment.
Only silence greeted him. Plain it was to Madeline, and she thought to all who had eyes to see, that to Stewart, since for some reason he had been spared all along his walk, this was the moment when he ought to be mercifully shot. But as no shots came a rugged dignity left him for a reckless scorn manifest in the way he strolled, across to the corner of the house, rolled yet another cigarette, and, presenting a broad breast to the window, smoked and waited.
That wait was almost unendurable for Madeline. Perhaps it was only a moment, several moments at the longest, but the time seemed a year. Stewart's face was scornful, hard. Did he suspect treachery on the part of his captors, that they meant to play with him as a cat with a mouse, to murder him at leisure? Madeline was sure she caught the old, inscrutable, mocking smile fleeting across his lips. He held that position for what must have been a reasonable time to his mind, then with a laugh and a shrug he threw the cigarette into the road. He shook his head as if at the incomprehensible motives of men who could have no fair reasons now for delay.
He made a sudden violent action that was more than a straightening of his powerful frame. It was the old instinctive violence. Then he faced north. Madeline read his thought, knew he was thinking of her, calling her a last silent farewell. He would serve her to his last breath, leave her free, keep his secret. That picture of him, dark-browed, fire-eyed, strangely sad and strong, sank indelibly into Madeline's heart of hearts.
The next instant he was striding forward, to force by bold and scornful presence a speedy fulfilment of his sentence.
Madeline stepped into the door, crossed the threshold. Stewart staggered as if indeed the bullets he expected had pierced him in mortal wound. His dark face turned white. His eyes had the rapt stare, the wild fear of a man who saw an apparition, yet who doubted his sight. Perhaps he had called to her as the Mexicans called to their Virgin; perhaps he imagined sudden death had come unawares, and this was her image appearing to him in some other life.
"Who—are—you?" he whispered, hoarsely.
She tried to lift her hands, failed, tried again, and held them out, trembling.
"It is I. Majesty. Your wife!"