"I shall defend them with my life, my general," cried Rozales, bowing low.
"Good!" cried Pesita. "That is all."
Rozales started back toward the ring of smokers.
"Ah, Captain!" cried Pesita. "Another thing. Will you make it known to the other officers that the stranger from Granavenoo is a captain and that it is my wish that he be well treated, but not told so much as might injure him, or his usefulness, about our sacred work of liberating poor, bleeding unhappy Mexico."
Again Rozales bowed and departed. This time he was not recalled.
Billy found Bridge and Miguel squatting on the ground with two dirty-faced peons standing guard over them. The latter were some little distance away. They made no objection when Billy approached the prisoners though they had looked in mild surprise when they saw him crossing toward them without a guard.
Billy sat down beside Bridge, and broke into a laugh.
"What's the joke?" asked Bridge. "Are we going to be hanged instead of being shot?"
"We ain't goin' to be either," said Billy, "an' I'm a captain. Whaddaya know about that?"
He explained all that had taken place between himself and Pesita while Bridge and Miguel listened attentively to his every word.
"I t'ought it was about de only way out fer us," said Billy. "We were in worse than I t'ought."
"Can the Bowery stuff, Billy," cried Bridge, "and talk like a white man. You can, you know."
"All right, bo," cried Billy, good-naturedly. "You see I forget when there is anything pressing like this, to chew about. Then I fall back into the old lingo. Well, as I was saying, I didn't want to do it unless you would stay too, but he wouldn't have you. He has it in for all gringos, and that bull you passed him about me being from a foreign country called Grand Avenue! He fell for it like a rube for the tapped-wire stuff. He said if I wouldn't stay and help him he'd croak the bunch of us."
"How about that ace-in-the-hole, you were telling me about?" asked Bridge.
"I still got it," and Billy fondled something hard that swung under his left arm beneath his shirt; "but, Lord, man! what could I do against the whole bunch? I might get a few of them; but they'd get us all in the end. This other way is better, though I hate to have to split with you, old man."
He was silent then for a moment, looking hard at the ground. Bridge whistled, and cleared his throat.
"I've always wanted to spend a year in Rio," he said. "We'll meet there, when you can make your get-away."
"You've said it," agreed Byrne. "It's Rio as soon as we can make it. Pesita's promised to set you both loose in the morning and send you under safe escort—Miguel to his happy home, and you to El Orobo Rancho. I guess the old stiff isn't so bad after all."
Miguel had pricked up his ears at the sound of the word ESCORT. He leaned far forward, closer to the two Americans, and whispered.
"Who is to command the escort?" he asked.
"I dunno," said Billy. "What difference does it make?"
"It makes all the difference between life and death for your friend and for me," said Miguel. "There is no reason why I should need an escort. I know my way throughout all Chihuahua as well as Pesita or any of his cutthroats. I have come and gone all my life without an escort. Of course your friend is different. It might be well for him to have company to El Orobo. Maybe it is all right; but wait until we learn who commands the escort. I know Pesita well. I know his methods. If Rozales rides out with us tomorrow morning you may say good-bye to your friend forever, for you will never see him in Rio, or elsewhere. He and I will be dead before ten o'clock."
"What makes you think that, bo?" demanded Billy.
"I do not think, senor," replied Miguel; "I know."
"Well," said Billy, "we'll wait and see."
"If it is Rozales, say nothing," said Miguel. "It will do no good; but we may then be on the watch, and if possible you might find the means to obtain a couple of revolvers for us. In which case—" he shrugged and permitted a faint smile to flex his lips.
As they talked a soldier came and announced that they were no longer prisoners—they were to have the freedom of the camp; "but," he concluded, "the general requests that you do not pass beyond the limits of the camp. There are many desperadoes in the hills and he fears for your safety, now that you are his guests."
The man spoke Spanish, so that it was necessary that Bridge interpret his words for the benefit of Billy, who had understood only part of what he said.
"Ask him," said Byrne, "if that stuff goes for me, too."
"He says no," replied Bridge after questioning the soldier, "that the captain is now one of them, and may go and come as do the other officers. Such are Pesita's orders."
Billy arose. The messenger had returned to his post at headquarters. The guard had withdrawn, leaving the three men alone.
"So long, old man," said Billy. "If I'm goin' to be of any help to you and Mig the less I'm seen with you the better. I'll blow over and mix with the Dago bunch, an' practice sittin' on my heels. It seems to be the right dope down here, an' I got to learn all I can about bein' a greaser seein' that I've turned one."
"Good-bye Billy, remember Rio," said Bridge.
"And the revolvers, senor," added Miguel.
"You bet," replied Billy, and strolled off in the direction of the little circle of cigarette smokers.
As he approached them Rozales looked up and smiled. Then, rising, extended his hand.
"Senor Captain," he said, "we welcome you. I am Captain Rozales." He hesitated waiting for Billy to give his name.
"My monacker's Byrne," said Billy. "Pleased to meet you, Cap."
"Ah, Captain Byrne," and Rozales proceeded to introduce the newcomer to his fellow-officers.
Several, like Rozales, were educated men who had been officers in the army under former regimes, but had turned bandit as the safer alternative to suffering immediate death at the hands of the faction then in power. The others, for the most part, were pure-blooded Indians whose adult lives had been spent in outlawry and brigandage. All were small of stature beside the giant, Byrne. Rozales and two others spoke English. With those Billy conversed. He tried to learn from them the name of the officer who was to command the escort that was to accompany Bridge and Miguel into the valley on the morrow; but Rozales and the others assured him that they did not know.
When he had asked the question Billy had been looking straight at Rozales, and he had seen the man's pupils contract and noticed the slight backward movement of the body which also denotes determination. Billy knew, therefore, that Rozales was lying. He did know who was to command the escort, and there was something sinister in that knowledge or the fellow would not have denied it.
The American began to consider plans for saving his friend from the fate which Pesita had outlined for him. Rozales, too, was thinking rapidly. He was no fool. Why had the stranger desired to know who was to command the escort? He knew none of the officers personally. What difference then, did it make to him who rode out on the morrow with his friend? Ah, but Miguel knew that it would make a difference. Miguel had spoken to the new captain, and aroused his suspicions.
Rozales excused himself and rose. A moment later he was in conversation with Pesita, unburdening himself of his suspicions, and outlining a plan.
"Do not send me in charge of the escort," he advised. "Send Captain Byrne himself."
Pesita pooh-poohed the idea.
"But wait," urged Rozales. "Let the stranger ride in command, with a half-dozen picked men who will see that nothing goes wrong. An hour before dawn I will send two men—they will be our best shots—on ahead. They will stop at a place we both know, and about noon the Captain Byrne and his escort will ride back to camp and tell us that they were attacked by a troop of Villa's men, and that both our guests were killed. It will be sad; but it will not be our fault. We will swear vengeance upon Villa, and the Captain Byrne will hate him as a good Pesitista should."
"You have the cunning of the Coyote, my captain," cried Pesita. "It shall be done as you suggest. Go now, and I will send for Captain Byrne, and give him his orders for the morning."
As Rozales strolled away a figure rose from the shadows at the side of Pesita's tent and slunk off into the darkness.
CHAPTER VIII. BILLY'S FIRST COMMAND
AND so it was that having breakfasted in the morning Bridge and Miguel started downward toward the valley protected by an escort under Captain Billy Byrne. An old service jacket and a wide-brimmed hat, both donated by brother officers, constituted Captain Byrne's uniform. His mount was the largest that the picket line of Pesita's forces could produce. Billy loomed large amongst his men.
For an hour they rode along the trail, Billy and Bridge conversing upon various subjects, none of which touched upon the one uppermost in the mind of each. Miguel rode, silent and preoccupied. The evening before he had whispered something to Bridge as he had crawled out of the darkness to lie close to the American, and during a brief moment that morning Bridge had found an opportunity to relay the Mexican's message to Billy Byrne.
The latter had but raised his eyebrows a trifle at the time, but later he smiled more than was usual with him. Something seemed to please him immensely.
Beside him at the head of the column rode Bridge and Miguel. Behind them trailed the six swarthy little troopers—the picked men upon whom Pesita could depend.
They had reached a point where the trail passes through a narrow dry arroyo which the waters of the rainy season had cut deep into the soft, powdery soil. Upon either bank grew cacti and mesquite, forming a sheltering screen behind which a regiment might have hidden. The place was ideal for an ambuscade.
"Here, Senor Capitan," whispered Miguel, as they neared the entrance to the trap.
A low hill shut off from their view all but the head of the cut, and it also hid them from the sight of any possible enemy which might have been lurking in wait for them farther down the arroyo.
At Miguel's words Byrne wheeled his horse to the right away from the trail which led through the bottom of the waterway and around the base of the hill, or rather in that direction, for he had scarce deviated from the direct way before one of the troopers spurred to his side, calling out in Spanish that he was upon the wrong trail.
"Wot's this guy chewin' about?" asked Billy, turning to Miguel.
"He says you must keep to the arroyo, Senor Capitan," explained the Mexican.
"Tell him to go back into his stall," was Byrne's laconic rejoinder, as he pushed his mount forward to pass the brigand.
The soldier was voluble in his objections. Again he reined in front of Billy, and by this time his five fellows had spurred forward to block the way.
"This is the wrong trail," they cried. "Come this other way, Capitan. Pesita has so ordered it."
Catching the drift of their remarks, Billy waved them to one side.
"I'm bossin' this picnic," he announced. "Get out o' the way, an' be quick about it if you don't want to be hurted."
Again he rode forward. Again the troopers interposed their mounts, and this time their leader cocked his carbine. His attitude was menacing. Billy was close to him. Their ponies were shoulder to shoulder, that of the bandit almost broadside of the trail.
Now Billy Byrne was more than passing well acquainted with many of the fundamental principles of sudden brawls. It is safe to say that he had never heard of Van Bibber; but he knew, as well as Van Bibber knew, that it is well to hit first.
Without a word and without warning he struck, leaning forward with all the weight of his body behind his blow, and catching the man full beneath the chin he lifted him as neatly from his saddle as though a battering ram had struck him.
Simultaneously Bridge and Miguel drew revolvers from their shirts and as Billy wheeled his pony toward the remaining five they opened fire upon them.
The battle was short and sweet. One almost escaped but Miguel, who proved to be an excellent revolver shot, brought him down at a hundred yards. He then, with utter disregard for the rules of civilized warfare, dispatched those who were not already dead.
"We must let none return to carry false tales to Pesita," he explained.
Even Billy Byrne winced at the ruthlessness of the cold-blooded murders; but he realized the necessity which confronted them though he could not have brought himself to do the things which the Mexican did with such sang-froid and even evident enjoyment.
"Now for the others!" cried Miguel, when he had assured himself that each of the six were really quite dead.
Spurring after him Billy and Bridge ran their horses over the rough ground at the base of the little hill, and then parallel to the arroyo for a matter of a hundred yards, where they espied two Indians, carbines in hand, standing in evident consternation because of the unexpected fusillade of shots which they had just heard and which they were unable to account for.
At the sight of the three the sharpshooters dropped behind cover and fired. Billy's horse stumbled at the first report, caught himself, reared high upon his hind legs and then toppled over, dead.
His rider, throwing himself to one side, scrambled to his feet and fired twice at the partially concealed men. Miguel and Bridge rode in rapidly to close quarters, firing as they came. One of the two men Pesita had sent to assassinate his "guests" dropped his gun, clutched at his breast, screamed, and sank back behind a clump of mesquite. The other turned and leaped over the edge of the bank into the arroyo, rolling and tumbling to the bottom in a cloud of dry dust.
As he rose to his feet and started on a run up the bed of the dry stream, dodging a zigzag course from one bit of scant cover to another Billy Byrne stepped to the edge of the washout and threw his carbine to his shoulder. His face was flushed, his eyes sparkled, a smile lighted his regular features.
"This is the life!" he cried, and pulled the trigger.
The man beneath him, running for his life like a frightened jackrabbit, sprawled forward upon his face, made a single effort to rise and then slumped limply down, forever.
Miguel and Bridge, dismounted now, came to Byrne's side. The Mexican was grinning broadly.
"The captain is one grand fighter," he said. "How my dear general would admire such a man as the captain. Doubtless he would make him a colonel. Come with me Senor Capitan and your fortune is made."
"Come where?" asked Billy Byrne.
"To the camp of the liberator of poor, bleeding Mexico—to General Francisco Villa."
"Nothin' doin'," said Billy. "I'm hooked up with this Pesita person now, an' I guess I'll stick. He's given me more of a run for my money in the last twenty-four hours than I've had since I parted from my dear old friend, the Lord of Yoka."
"But Senor Capitan," cried Miguel, "you do not mean to say that you are going back to Pesita! He will shoot you down with his own hand when he has learned what has happened here."
"I guess not," said Billy.
"You'd better go with Miguel, Billy," urged Bridge. "Pesita will not forgive you this. You've cost him eight men today and he hasn't any more men than he needs at best. Besides you've made a monkey of him and unless I miss my guess you'll have to pay for it."
"No," said Billy, "I kind o' like this Pesita gent. I think I'll stick around with him for a while yet. Anyhow until I've had a chance to see his face after I've made my report to him. You guys run along now and make your get-away good, an' I'll beat it back to camp."
He crossed to where the two horses of the slain marksmen were hidden, turned one of them loose and mounted the other.
"So long, boes!" he cried, and with a wave of his hand wheeled about and spurred back along the trail over which they had just come.
Miguel and Bridge watched him for a moment, then they, too, mounted and turned away in the opposite direction. Bridge recited no verse for the balance of that day. His heart lay heavy in his bosom, for he missed Billy Byrne, and was fearful of the fate which awaited him at the camp of the bandit.
Billy, blithe as a lark, rode gaily back along the trail to camp. He looked forward with unmixed delight to his coming interview with Pesita, and to the wild, half-savage life which association with the bandit promised. All his life had Billy Byrne fed upon excitement and adventure. As gangster, thug, holdup man and second-story artist Billy had found food for his appetite within the dismal, sooty streets of Chicago's great West Side, and then Fate had flung him upon the savage shore of Yoka to find other forms of adventure where the best that is in a strong man may be brought out in the stern battle for existence against primeval men and conditions. The West Side had developed only Billy's basest characteristics. He might have slipped back easily into the old ways had it not been for HER and the recollection of that which he had read in her eyes. Love had been there; but greater than that to hold a man into the straight and narrow path of decency and honor had been respect and admiration. It had seemed incredible to Billy that a goddess should feel such things for him—for the same man her scornful lips once had branded as coward and mucker; yet he had read the truth aright, and since then Billy Byrne had done his best according to the fight that had been given him to deserve the belief she had in him.
So far there had crept into his consciousness no disquieting doubts as to the consistency of his recent action in joining the force of a depredating Mexican outlaw. Billy knew nothing of the political conditions of the republic. Had Pesita told him that he was president of Mexico, Billy could not have disputed the statement from any knowledge of facts which he possessed. As a matter of fact about all Billy had ever known of Mexico was that it had some connection with an important place called Juarez where running meets were held.
To Billy Byrne, then, Pesita was a real general, and Billy, himself, a bona fide captain. He had entered an army which was at war with some other army. What they were warring about Billy knew not, nor did he care. There should be fighting and he loved that—that much he knew. The ethics of Pesita's warfare troubled him not. He had heard that some great American general had said: "War is hell." Billy was willing to take his word for it, and accept anything which came in the guise of war as entirely proper and as it should be.
The afternoon was far gone when Billy drew rein in the camp of the outlaw band. Pesita with the bulk of his raiders was out upon some excursion to the north. Only half a dozen men lolled about, smoking or sleeping away the hot day. They looked at Billy in evident surprise when they saw him riding in alone; but they asked no questions and Billy offered no explanation—his report was for the ears of Pesita only.
The balance of the day Billy spent in acquiring further knowledge of Spanish by conversing with those of the men who remained awake, and asking innumerable questions. It was almost sundown when Pesita rode in. Two riderless horses were led by troopers in the rear of the little column and three men swayed painfully in their saddles and their clothing was stained with blood.
Evidently Pesita had met with resistance. There was much voluble chattering on the part of those who had remained behind in their endeavors to extract from their returning comrades the details of the day's enterprise. By piecing together the various scraps of conversation he could understand Billy discovered that Pesita had ridden far to demand tribute from a wealthy ranchero, only to find that word of his coming had preceded him and brought a large detachment of Villa's regulars who concealed themselves about the house and outbuildings until Pesita and his entire force were well within close range.
"We were lucky to get off as well as we did," said an officer.
Billy grinned inwardly as he thought of the pleasant frame of mind in which Pesita might now be expected to receive the news that eight of his troopers had been killed and his two "guests" safely removed from the sphere of his hospitality.
And even as his mind dwelt delightedly upon the subject a ragged Indian carrying a carbine and with heavy silver spurs strapped to his bare feet approached and saluted him.
"General Pesita wishes Senor Capitan Byrne to report to him at once," said the man.
"Sure Mike!" replied Billy, and made his way through the pandemonium of the camp toward the headquarters tent.
As he went he slipped his hand inside his shirt and loosened something which hung beneath his left arm.
"Li'l ol' ace-in-the-hole," he murmured affectionately.
He found Pesita pacing back and forth before his tent—an energetic bundle of nerves which no amount of hard riding and fighting could tire or discourage.
As Billy approached Pesita shot a quick glance at his face, that he might read, perhaps, in his new officer's expression whether anger or suspicion had been aroused by the killing of his American friend, for Pesita never dreamed but that Bridge had been dead since mid-forenoon.
"Well," said Pesita, smiling, "you left Senor Bridge and Miguel safely at their destination?"
"I couldn't take 'em all the way," replied Billy, "cause I didn't have no more men to guard 'em with; but I seen 'em past the danger I guess an' well on their way."
"You had no men?" questioned Pesita. "You had six troopers."
"Oh, they was all croaked before we'd been gone two hours. You see it happens like this: We got as far as that dry arroyo just before the trail drops down into the valley, when up jumps a bunch of this here Villa's guys and commenced takin' pot shots at us.
"Seein' as how I was sent to guard Bridge an' Mig, I makes them dismount and hunt cover, and then me an' my men wades in and cleans up the bunch. They was only a few of them but they croaked the whole bloomin' six o' mine.
"I tell you it was some scrap while it lasted; but I saved your guests from gettin' hurted an' I know that that's what you sent me to do. It's too bad about the six men we lost but, leave it to me, we'll get even with that Villa guy yet. Just lead me to 'im."
As he spoke Billy commenced scratching himself beneath the left arm, and then, as though to better reach the point of irritation, he slipped his hand inside his shirt. If Pesita noticed the apparently innocent little act, or interpreted it correctly may or may not have been the fact. He stood looking straight into Byrne's eyes for a full minute. His face denoted neither baffled rage nor contemplated revenge. Presently a slow smile raised his heavy mustache and revealed his strong, white teeth.
"You have done well, Captain Byrne," he said. "You are a man after my own heart," and he extended his hand.
A half-hour later Billy walked slowly back to his own blankets, and to say that he was puzzled would scarce have described his mental state.
"I can't quite make that gink out," he mused. "Either he's a mighty good loser or else he's a deep one who'll wait a year to get me the way he wants to get me."
And Pesita a few moments later was saying to Captain Rozales:
"I should have shot him if I could spare such a man; but it is seldom I find one with the courage and effrontery he possesses. Why think of it, Rozales, he kills eight of my men, and lets my prisoners escape, and then dares to come back and tell me about it when he might easily have gotten away. Villa would have made him an officer for this thing, and Miguel must have told him so. He found out in some way about your little plan and he turned the tables on us. We can use him, Rozales, but we must watch him. Also, my dear captain, watch his right hand and when he slips it into his shirt be careful that you do not draw on him—unless you happen to be behind him."
Rozales was not inclined to take his chief's view of Byrne's value to them. He argued that the man was guilty of disloyalty and therefore a menace. What he thought, but did not advance as an argument, was of a different nature. Rozales was filled with rage to think that the newcomer had outwitted him, and beaten him at his own game, and he was jealous, too, of the man's ascendancy in the esteem of Pesita; but he hid his personal feelings beneath a cloak of seeming acquiescence in his chief's views, knowing that some day his time would come when he might rid himself of the danger of this obnoxious rival.
"And tomorrow," continued Pesita, "I am sending him to Cuivaca. Villa has considerable funds in bank there, and this stranger can learn what I want to know about the size of the detachment holding the town, and the habits of the garrison."
CHAPTER IX. BARBARA IN MEXICO
THE manager of El Orobo Rancho was an American named Grayson. He was a tall, wiry man whose education had been acquired principally in the cow camps of Texas, where, among other things one does NOT learn to love nor trust a greaser. As a result of this early training Grayson was peculiarly unfitted in some respects to manage an American ranch in Mexico; but he was a just man, and so if his vaqueros did not love him, they at least respected him, and everyone who was or possessed the latent characteristics of a wrongdoer feared him.
Perhaps it is not fair to say that Grayson was in any way unfitted for the position he held, since as a matter of fact he was an ideal ranch foreman, and, if the truth be known, the simple fact that he was a gringo would have been sufficient to have won him the hatred of the Mexicans who worked under him—not in the course of their everyday relations; but when the fires of racial animosity were fanned to flame by some untoward incident upon either side of the border.
Today Grayson was particularly rabid. The more so because he could not vent his anger upon the cause of it, who was no less a person than his boss.
It seemed incredible to Grayson that any man of intelligence could have conceived and then carried out the fool thing which the boss had just done, which was to have come from the safety of New York City to the hazards of warring Mexico, bringing—and this was the worst feature of it—his daughter with him. And at such a time! Scarce a day passed without its rumors or reports of new affronts and even atrocities being perpetrated upon American residents of Mexico. Each day, too, the gravity of these acts increased. From mere insult they had run of late to assault and even to murder. Nor was the end in sight.
Pesita had openly sworn to rid Mexico of the gringo—to kill on sight every American who fell into his hands. And what could Grayson do in case of a determined attack upon the rancho? It is true he had a hundred men—laborers and vaqueros, but scarce a dozen of these were Americans, and the rest would, almost without exception, follow the inclinations of consanguinity in case of trouble.
To add to Grayson's irritability he had just lost his bookkeeper, and if there was one thing more than any other that Grayson hated it was pen and ink. The youth had been a "lunger" from Iowa, a fairly nice little chap, and entirely suited to his duties under any other circumstances than those which prevailed in Mexico at that time. He was in mortal terror of his life every moment that he was awake, and at last had given in to the urge of cowardice and resigned. The day previous he had been bundled into a buckboard and driven over to the Mexican Central which, at that time, still was operating trains—occasionally—between Chihuahua and Juarez.
His mind filled with these unpleasant thoughts, Grayson sat at his desk in the office of the ranch trying to unravel the riddle of a balance sheet which would not balance. Mixed with the blue of the smoke from his briar was the deeper azure of a spirited monologue in which Grayson was engaged.
A girl was passing the building at the moment. At her side walked a gray-haired man—one of those men whom you just naturally fit into a mental picture of a director's meeting somewhere along Wall Street.
"Sich langwidge!" cried the girl, with a laugh, covering her ears with her palms.
The man at her side smiled.
"I can't say that I blame him much, Barbara," he replied. "It was a very foolish thing for me to bring you down here at this time. I can't understand what ever possessed me to do it."
"Don't blame yourself, dear," remonstrated the girl, "when it was all my fault. I begged and begged and begged until you had to consent, and I'm not sorry either—if nothing happens to you because of our coming. I couldn't stay in New York another minute. Everyone was so snoopy, and I could just tell that they were dying to ask questions about Billy and me."
"I can't get it through my head yet, Barbara," said the man, "why in the world you broke with Billy Mallory. He's one of the finest young men in New York City today—just my ideal of the sort of man I'd like my only daughter to marry."
"I tried, Papa," said the girl in a low voice; "but I couldn't—I just couldn't."
"Was it because—" the man stopped abruptly. "Well, never mind dear, I shan't be snoopy too. Here now, you run along and do some snooping yourself about the ranch. I want to stop in and have a talk with Grayson."
Down by one of the corrals where three men were busily engaged in attempting to persuade an unbroken pony that a spade bit is a pleasant thing to wear in one's mouth, Barbara found a seat upon a wagon box which commanded an excellent view of the entertainment going on within the corral. As she sat there experiencing a combination of admiration for the agility and courage of the men and pity for the horse the tones of a pleasant masculine voice broke in upon her thoughts.
"Out there somewhere!" says I to me. "By Gosh, I guess, thats poetry!" "Out there somewhere—Penelope—with kisses on her mouth!" And then, thinks I, "O college guy! your talk it gets me in the eye, The north is creeping in the air, the birds are flying south."
Barbara swung around to view the poet. She saw a slender man astride a fagged Mexican pony. A ragged coat and ragged trousers covered the man's nakedness. Indian moccasins protected his feet, while a torn and shapeless felt hat sat upon his well-shaped head. AMERICAN was written all over him. No one could have imagined him anything else. Apparently he was a tramp as well—his apparel proclaimed him that; but there were two discordant notes in the otherwise harmonious ensemble of your typical bo. He was clean shaven and he rode a pony. He rode erect, too, with the easy seat of an army officer.
At sight of the girl he raised his battered hat and swept it low to his pony's shoulder as he bent in a profound bow.
"I seek the majordomo, senorita," he said.
"Mr. Grayson is up at the office, that little building to the left of the ranchhouse," replied the girl, pointing.
The newcomer had addressed her in Spanish, and as he heard her reply, in pure and liquid English, his eyes widened a trifle; but the familiar smile with which he had greeted her left his face, and his parting bow was much more dignified though no less profound than its predecessor.
And you, my sweet Penelope, out there somewhere you wait for me, With buds of roses in your hair and kisses on your mouth.
Grayson and his employer both looked up as the words of Knibbs' poem floated in to them through the open window.
"I wonder where that blew in from," remarked Grayson, as his eyes discovered Bridge astride the tired pony, looking at him through the window. A polite smile touched the stranger's lips as his eyes met Grayson's, and then wandered past him to the imposing figure of the Easterner.
"Good evening, gentlemen," said Bridge.
"Evenin'," snapped Grayson. "Go over to the cookhouse and the Chink'll give you something to eat. Turn your pony in the lower pasture. Smith'll show you where to bunk tonight, an' you kin hev your breakfast in the mornin'. S'long!" The ranch superintendent turned back to the paper in his hand which he had been discussing with his employer at the moment of the interruption. He had volleyed his instructions at Bridge as though pouring a rain of lead from a machine gun, and now that he had said what he had to say the incident was closed in so far as he was concerned.
The hospitality of the Southwest permitted no stranger to be turned away without food and a night's lodging. Grayson having arranged for these felt that he had done all that might be expected of a host, especially when the uninvited guest was so obviously a hobo and doubtless a horse thief as well, for who ever knew a hobo to own a horse?
Bridge continued to sit where he had reined in his pony. He was looking at Grayson with what the discerning boss judged to be politely concealed enjoyment.
"Possibly," suggested the boss in a whisper to his aide, "the man has business with you. You did not ask him, and I am sure that he said nothing about wishing a meal or a place to sleep."
"Huh?" grunted Grayson, and then to Bridge, "Well, what the devil DO you want?"
"A job," replied Bridge, "or, to be more explicit, I need a job—far be it from me to WISH one."
The Easterner smiled. Grayson looked a bit mystified—and irritated.
"Well, I hain't got none," he snapped. "We don't need nobody now unless it might be a good puncher—one who can rope and ride."
"I can ride," replied Bridge, "as is evidenced by the fact that you now see me astride a horse."
"I said RIDE," said Grayson. "Any fool can SIT on a horse. NO, I hain't got nothin', an' I'm busy now. Hold on!" he exclaimed as though seized by a sudden inspiration. He looked sharply at Bridge for a moment and then shook his head sadly. "No, I'm afraid you couldn't do it—a guy's got to be eddicated for the job I got in mind."
"Washing dishes?" suggested Bridge.
Grayson ignored the playfulness of the other's question.
"Keepin' books," he explained. There was a finality in his tone which said: "As you, of course, cannot keep books the interview is now over. Get out!"
"I could try," said Bridge. "I can read and write, you know. Let me try." Bridge wanted money for the trip to Rio, and, too, he wanted to stay in the country until Billy was ready to leave.
"Savvy Spanish?" asked Grayson.
"I read and write it better than I speak it," said Bridge, "though I do the latter well enough to get along anywhere that it is spoken."
Grayson wanted a bookkeeper worse than he could ever recall having wanted anything before in all his life. His better judgment told him that it was the height of idiocy to employ a ragged bum as a bookkeeper; but the bum was at least as much of a hope to him as is a straw to a drowning man, and so Grayson clutched at him.
"Go an' turn your cayuse in an' then come back here," he directed, "an' I'll give you a tryout."
"Thanks," said Bridge, and rode off in the direction of the pasture gate.
"'Fraid he won't never do," said Grayson, ruefully, after Bridge had passed out of earshot.
"I rather imagine that he will," said the boss. "He is an educated man, Grayson—you can tell that from his English, which is excellent. He's probably one of the great army of down-and-outers. The world is full of them—poor devils. Give him a chance, Grayson, and anyway he adds another American to our force, and each one counts."
"Yes, that's right; but I hope you won't need 'em before you an' Miss Barbara go," said Grayson.
"I hope not, Grayson; but one can never tell with conditions here such as they are. Have you any hope that you will be able to obtain a safe conduct for us from General Villa?"
"Oh, Villa'll give us the paper all right," said Grayson; "but it won't do us no good unless we don't meet nobody but Villa's men on the way out. This here Pesita's the critter I'm leery of. He's got it in for all Americans, and especially for El Orobo Rancho. You know we beat off a raid of his about six months ago—killed half a dozen of his men, an' he won't never forgive that. Villa can't spare a big enough force to give us safe escort to the border and he can't assure the safety of the train service. It looks mighty bad, sir—I don't see what in hell you came for."
"Neither do I, Grayson," agreed the boss; "but I'm here and we've got to make the best of it. All this may blow over—it has before—and we'll laugh at our fears in a few weeks."
"This thing that's happenin' now won't never blow over 'til the stars and stripes blow over Chihuahua," said Grayson with finality.
A few moments later Bridge returned to the office, having unsaddled his pony and turned it into the pasture.
"What's your name?" asked Grayson, preparing to enter it in his time book.
"Bridge," replied the new bookkeeper.
"'Nitials," snapped Grayson.
Bridge hesitated. "Oh, put me down as L. Bridge," he said.
"Where from?" asked the ranch foreman.
"El Orobo Rancho," answered Bridge.
Grayson shot a quick glance at the man. The answer confirmed his suspicions that the stranger was probably a horse thief, which, in Grayson's estimation, was the worst thing a man could be.
"Where did you get that pony you come in on?" he demanded. "I ain't sayin' nothin' of course, but I jest want to tell you that we ain't got no use for horse thieves here."
The Easterner, who had been a listener, was shocked by the brutality of Grayson's speech; but Bridge only laughed.
"If you must know," he said, "I never bought that horse, an' the man he belonged to didn't give him to me. I just took him."
"You got your nerve," growled Grayson. "I guess you better git out. We don't want no horse thieves here."
"Wait," interposed the boss. "This man doesn't act like a horse thief. A horse thief, I should imagine, would scarcely admit his guilt. Let's have his story before we judge him."
"All right," said Grayson; "but he's just admitted he stole the horse."
Bridge turned to the boss. "Thanks," he said; "but really I did steal the horse."
Grayson made a gesture which said: "See, I told you so."
"It was like this," went on Bridge. "The gentleman who owned the horse, together with some of his friends, had been shooting at me and my friends. When it was all over there was no one left to inform us who were the legal heirs of the late owners of this and several other horses which were left upon our hands, so I borrowed this one. The law would say, doubtless, that I had stolen it; but I am perfectly willing to return it to its rightful owners if someone will find them for me."
"You been in a scrap?" asked Grayson. "Who with?"
"A party of Pesita's men," replied Bridge.
"You see they are working pretty close," said Grayson, to his employer, and then to Bridge: "Well, if you took that cayuse from one of Pesita's bunch you can't call that stealin'. Your room's in there, back of the office, an' you'll find some clothes there that the last man forgot to take with him. You ken have 'em, an' from the looks o' yourn you need 'em."
"Thank you," replied Bridge. "My clothes are a bit rusty. I shall have to speak to James about them," and he passed through into the little bedroom off the office, and closed the door behind him.
"James?" grunted Grayson. "Who the devil does he mean by James? I hain't seen but one of 'em."
The boss was laughing quietly.
"The man's a character," he said. "He'll be worth all you pay him—if you can appreciate him, which I doubt, Grayson."
"I ken appreciate him if he ken keep books," replied Grayson. "That's all I ask of him."
When Bridge emerged from the bedroom he was clothed in white duck trousers, a soft shirt, and a pair of tennis shoes, and such a change had they wrought in his appearance that neither Grayson nor his employer would have known him had they not seen him come from the room into which they had sent him to make the exchange of clothing.
"Feel better?" asked the boss, smiling.
"Clothes are but an incident with me," replied Bridge. "I wear them because it is easier to do so than it would be to dodge the weather and the police. Whatever I may have upon my back affects in no way what I have within my head. No, I cannot say that I feel any better, since these clothes are not as comfortable as my old ones. However if it pleases Mr. Grayson that I should wear a pink kimono while working for him I shall gladly wear a pink kimono. What shall I do first, sir?" The question was directed toward Grayson.
"Sit down here an' see what you ken make of this bunch of trouble," replied the foreman. "I'll talk with you again this evenin'."
As Grayson and his employer quitted the office and walked together toward the corrals the latter's brow was corrugated by thought and his facial expression that of one who labors to fasten upon a baffling and illusive recollection.
"It beats all, Grayson," he said presently; "but I am sure that I have known this new bookkeeper of yours before. The moment he came out of that room dressed like a human being I knew that I had known him; but for the life of me I can't place him. I should be willing to wager considerable, however, that his name is not Bridge."
"S'pect you're right," assented Grayson. "He's probably one o' them eastern dude bank clerks what's gone wrong and come down here to hide. Mighty fine place to hide jest now, too.
"And say, speakin' of banks," he went on, "what'll I do 'bout sendin' over to Cuivaca fer the pay tomorrow. Next day's pay day. I don't like to send this here bum, I can't trust a greaser no better, an' I can't spare none of my white men thet I ken trust."
"Send him with a couple of the most trustworthy Mexicans you have," suggested the boss.
"There ain't no sich critter," replied Grayson; "but I guess that's the best I ken do. I'll send him along with Tony an' Benito—they hate each other too much to frame up anything together, an' they both hate a gringo. I reckon they'll hev a lovely trip."
"But they'll get back with the money, eh?" queried the boss.
"If Pesita don't get 'em," replied Grayson.
CHAPTER X. BILLY CRACKS A SAFE
BILLY BYRNE, captain, rode into Cuivaca from the south. He had made a wide detour in order to accomplish this; but under the circumstances he had thought it wise to do so. In his pocket was a safe conduct from one of Villa's generals farther south—a safe conduct taken by Pesita from the body of one of his recent victims. It would explain Billy's presence in Cuivaca since it had been intended to carry its rightful possessor to Juarez and across the border into the United States.
He found the military establishment at Cuivaca small and ill commanded. There were soldiers upon the streets; but the only regularly detailed guard was stationed in front of the bank. No one questioned Billy. He did not have to show his safe conduct.
"This looks easy," thought Billy. "A reg'lar skinch."
He first attended to his horse, turning him into a public corral, and then sauntered up the street to the bank, which he entered, still unquestioned. Inside he changed a bill of large denomination which Pesita had given him for the purpose of an excuse to examine the lay of the bank from the inside. Billy took a long time to count the change. All the time his eyes wandered about the interior while he made mental notes of such salient features as might prove of moment to him later. The money counted Billy slowly rolled a cigarette.
He saw that the bank was roughly divided into two sections by a wire and wood partition. On one side were the customers, on the other the clerks and a teller. The latter sat behind a small wicket through which he received deposits and cashed checks. Back of him, against the wall, stood a large safe of American manufacture. Billy had had business before with similar safes. A doorway in the rear wall led into the yard behind the building. It was closed by a heavy door covered with sheet iron and fastened by several bolts and a thick, strong bar. There were no windows in the rear wall. From that side the bank appeared almost impregnable to silent assault.
Inside everything was primitive and Billy found himself wondering how a week passed without seeing a bank robbery in the town. Possibly the strong rear defenses and the armed guard in front accounted for it.
Satisfied with what he had learned he passed out onto the sidewalk and crossed the street to a saloon. Some soldiers and citizens were drinking at little tables in front of the bar. A couple of card games were in progress, and through the open rear doorway Billy saw a little gathering encircling a cock fight.
In none of these things was Billy interested. What he had wished in entering the saloon was merely an excuse to place himself upon the opposite side of the street from the bank that he might inspect the front from the outside without arousing suspicion.
Having purchased and drunk a bottle of poor beer, the temperature of which had probably never been below eighty since it left the bottling department of the Texas brewery which inflicted it upon the ignorant, he sauntered to the front window and looked out.
There he saw that the bank building was a two-story affair, the entrance to the second story being at the left side of the first floor, opening directly onto the sidewalk in full view of the sentry who paced to and fro before the structure.
Billy wondered what the second floor was utilized for. He saw soiled hangings at the windows which aroused a hope and a sudden inspiration. There was a sign above the entrance to the second floor; but Billy's knowledge of the language had not progressed sufficiently to permit him to translate it, although he had his suspicions as to its meaning. He would learn if his guess was correct.
Returning to the bar he ordered another bottle of beer, and as he drank it he practiced upon the bartender some of his recently acquired Spanish and learned, though not without considerable difficulty, that he might find lodgings for the night upon the second floor of the bank building.
Much elated, Billy left the saloon and walked along the street until he came to the one general store of the town. After another heart rending scrimmage with the language of Ferdinand and Isabella he succeeded in making several purchases—two heavy sacks, a brace, two bits, and a keyhole saw. Placing the tools in one of the sacks he wrapped the whole in the second sack and made his way back to the bank building.
Upon the second floor he found the proprietor of the rooming-house and engaged a room in the rear of the building, overlooking the yard. The layout was eminently satisfactory to Captain Byrne and it was with a feeling of great self-satisfaction that he descended and sought a restaurant.
He had been sent by Pesita merely to look over the ground and the defenses of the town, that the outlaw might later ride in with his entire force and loot the bank; but Billy Byrne, out of his past experience in such matters, had evolved a much simpler plan for separating the enemy from his wealth.
Having eaten, Billy returned to his room. It was now dark and the bank closed and unlighted showed that all had left it. Only the sentry paced up and down the sidewalk in front.
Going at once to his room Billy withdrew his tools from their hiding place beneath the mattress, and a moment later was busily engaged in boring holes through the floor at the foot of his bed. For an hour he worked, cautiously and quietly, until he had a rough circle of holes enclosing a space about two feet in diameter. Then he laid aside the brace and bit, and took the keyhole saw, with which he patiently sawed through the wood between contiguous holes, until, the circle completed, he lifted out a section of the floor leaving an aperture large enough to permit him to squeeze his body through when the time arrived for him to pass into the bank beneath.
While Billy had worked three men had ridden into Cuivaca. They were Tony, Benito, and the new bookkeeper of El Orobo Rancho. The Mexicans, after eating, repaired at once to the joys of the cantina; while Bridge sought a room in the building to which his escort directed him.
As chance would have it, it was the same building in which Billy labored and the room lay upon the rear side of it overlooking the same yard. But Bridge did not lie awake to inspect his surroundings. For years he had not ridden as many miles as he had during the past two days, so that long unused muscles cried out for rest and relaxation. As a result, Bridge was asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow, and so profound was his slumber that it seemed that nothing short of a convulsion of nature would arouse him.
As Bridge lay down upon his bed Billy Byrne left his room and descended to the street. The sentry before the bank paid no attention to him, and Billy passed along, unhindered, to the corral where he had left his horse. Here, as he was saddling the animal, he was accosted, much to his disgust, by the proprietor.
In broken English the man expressed surprise that Billy rode out so late at night, and the American thought that he detected something more than curiosity in the other's manner and tone—suspicion of the strange gringo.
It would never do to leave the fellow in that state of mind, and so Billy leaned close to the other's ear, and with a broad grin and a wink whispered: "Senorita," and jerked his thumb toward the south. "I'll be back by mornin'," he added.
The Mexican's manner altered at once. He laughed and nodded, knowingly, and poked Billy in the ribs. Then he watched him mount and ride out of the corral toward the south—which was also in the direction of the bank, to the rear of which Billy rode without effort to conceal his movements.
There he dismounted and left his horse standing with the bridle reins dragging upon the ground, while he removed the lariat from the pommel of the saddle, and, stuffing it inside his shirt, walked back to the street on which the building stood, and so made his way past the sentry and to his room.
Here he pushed back the bed which he had drawn over the hole in the floor, dropped his two sacks through into the bank, and tying the brace to one end of the lariat lowered it through after the sacks.
Looping the middle of the lariat over a bedpost Billy grasped both strands firmly and lowered himself through the aperture into the room beneath. He made no more noise in his descent than he had made upon other similar occasions in his past life when he had practiced the gentle art of porch-climbing along Ashland Avenue and Washington Boulevard.
Having gained the floor he pulled upon one end of the lariat until he had drawn it free of the bedpost above, when it fell into his waiting hands. Coiling it carefully Billy placed it around his neck and under one arm. Billy, acting as a professional, was a careful and methodical man. He always saw that every little detail was properly attended to before he went on to the next phase of his endeavors. Because of this ingrained caution Billy had long since secured the tops of the two sacks together, leaving only a sufficient opening to permit of their each being filled without delay or inconvenience.
Now he turned his attention to the rear door. The bar and bolts were easily shot from their seats from the inside, and Billy saw to it that this was attended to before he went further with his labors. It were well to have one's retreat assured at the earliest possible moment. A single bolt Billy left in place that he might not be surprised by an intruder; but first he had tested it and discovered that it could be drawn with ease.
These matters satisfactorily attended to Billy assaulted the combination knob of the safe with the metal bit which he had inserted in the brace before lowering it into the bank.
The work was hard and progressed slowly. It was necessary to withdraw the bit often and lubricate it with a piece of soap which Billy had brought along in his pocket for the purpose; but eventually a hole was bored through into the tumblers of the combination lock.
From without Billy could hear the footsteps of the sentry pacing back and forth within fifty feet of him, all unconscious that the bank he was guarding was being looted almost beneath his eyes. Once a corporal came with another soldier and relieved the sentry. After that Billy heard the footfalls no longer, for the new sentry was barefoot.
The boring finished, Billy drew a bit of wire from an inside pocket and inserted it in the hole. Then, working the wire with accustomed fingers, he turned the combination knob this way and that, feeling with the bit of wire until the tumblers should all be in line.
This, too, was slow work; but it was infinitely less liable to attract attention than any other method of safe cracking with which Billy was familiar.
It was long past midnight when Captain Byrne was rewarded with success—the tumblers clicked into position, the handle of the safe door turned and the bolts slipped back.
To swing open the door and transfer the contents of the safe to the two sacks was the work of but a few minutes. As Billy rose and threw the heavy burden across a shoulder he heard a challenge from without, and then a parley. Immediately after the sound of footsteps ascending the stairway to the rooming-house came plainly to his ears, and then he had slipped the last bolt upon the rear door and was out in the yard beyond.
Now Bridge, sleeping the sleep of utter exhaustion that the boom of a cannon might not have disturbed, did that inexplicable thing which every one of us has done a hundred times in our lives. He awakened, with a start, out of a sound sleep, though no disturbing noise had reached his ears.
Something impelled him to sit up in bed, and as he did so he could see through the window beside him into the yard at the rear of the building. There in the moonlight he saw a man throwing a sack across the horn of a saddle. He saw the man mount, and he saw him wheel his horse around about and ride away toward the north. There seemed to Bridge nothing unusual about the man's act, nor had there been any indication either of stealth or haste to arouse the American's suspicions. Bridge lay back again upon his pillows and sought to woo the slumber which the sudden awakening seemed to have banished for the remainder of the night.
And up the stairway to the second floor staggered Tony and Benito. Their money was gone; but they had acquired something else which appeared much more difficult to carry and not so easily gotten rid of.
Tony held the key to their room. It was the second room upon the right of the hall. Tony remembered that very distinctly. He had impressed it upon his mind before leaving the room earlier in the evening, for Tony had feared some such contingency as that which had befallen.
Tony fumbled with the handle of a door, and stabbed vainly at an elusive keyhole.
"Wait," mumbled Benito. "This is not the room. It was the second door from the stairway. This is the third."
Tony lurched about and staggered back. Tony reasoned: "If that was the third door the next behind me must be the second, and on the right;" but Tony took not into consideration that he had reversed the direction of his erratic wobbling. He lunged across the hall—not because he wished to but because the spirits moved him. He came in contact with a door. "This, then, must be the second door," he soliloquized, "and it is upon my right. Ah, Benito, this is the room!"
Benito was skeptical. He said as much; but Tony was obdurate. Did he not know a second door when he saw one? Was he, furthermore, not a grown man and therefore entirely capable of distinguishing between his left hand and his right? Yes! Tony was all of that, and more, so Tony inserted the key in the lock—it would have turned any lock upon the second floor—and, lo! the door swung inward upon its hinges.
"Ah! Benito," cried Tony. "Did I not tell you so? See! This is our room, for the key opens the door."
The room was dark. Tony, carried forward by the weight of his head, which had long since grown unaccountably heavy, rushed his feet rapidly forward that he might keep them within a few inches of his center of equilibrium.
The distance which it took his feet to catch up with his head was equal to the distance between the doorway and the foot of the bed, and when Tony reached that spot, with Benito meandering after him, the latter, much to his astonishment, saw in the diffused moonlight which pervaded the room, the miraculous disappearance of his former enemy and erstwhile friend. Then from the depths below came a wild scream and a heavy thud.
The sentry upon the beat before the bank heard both. For an instant he stood motionless, then he called aloud for the guard, and turned toward the bank door. But this was locked and he could but peer in through the windows. Seeing a dark form within, and being a Mexican he raised his rifle and fired through the glass of the doors.
Tony, who had dropped through the hole which Billy had used so quietly, heard the zing of a bullet pass his head, and the impact as it sploshed into the adobe wall behind him. With a second yell Tony dodged behind the safe and besought Mary to protect him.
From above Benito peered through the hole into the blackness below. Down the hall came the barefoot landlord, awakened by the screams and the shot. Behind him came Bridge, buckling his revolver belt about his hips as he ran. Not having been furnished with pajamas Bridge had not thought it necessary to remove his clothing, and so he had lost no time in dressing.
When the two, now joined by Benito, reached the street they found the guard there, battering in the bank doors. Benito, fearing for the life of Tony, which if anyone took should be taken by him, rushed upon the sergeant of the guard, explaining with both lips and hands the remarkable accident which had precipitated Tony into the bank.
The sergeant listened, though he did not believe, and when the doors had fallen in, he commanded Tony to come out with his hands above his head. Then followed an investigation which disclosed the looting of the safe, and the great hole in the ceiling through which Tony had tumbled.
The bank president came while the sergeant and the landlord were in Billy's room investigating. Bridge had followed them.
"It was the gringo," cried the excited Boniface. "This is his room. He has cut a hole in my floor which I shall have to pay to have repaired."
A captain came next, sleepy-eyed and profane. When he heard what had happened and that the wealth which he had been detailed to guard had been taken while he slept, he tore his hair and promised that the sentry should be shot at dawn.
By the time they had returned to the street all the male population of Cuivaca was there and most of the female.
"One-thousand dollars," cried the bank president, "to the man who stops the thief and returns to me what the villain has stolen."
A detachment of soldiers was in the saddle and passing the bank as the offer was made.
"Which way did he go?" asked the captain. "Did no one see him leave?"
Bridge was upon the point of saying that he had seen him and that he had ridden north, when it occurred to him that a thousand dollars—even a thousand dollars Mex—was a great deal of money, and that it would carry both himself and Billy to Rio and leave something for pleasure beside.
Then up spoke a tall, thin man with the skin of a coffee bean.
"I saw him, Senor Capitan," he cried. "He kept his horse in my corral, and at night he came and took it out saying that he was riding to visit a senorita. He fooled me, the scoundrel; but I will tell you—he rode south. I saw him ride south with my own eyes."
"Then we shall have him before morning," cried the captain, "for there is but one place to the south where a robber would ride, and he has not had sufficient start of us that he can reach safety before we overhaul him. Forward! March!" and the detachment moved down the narrow street. "Trot! March!" And as they passed the store: "Gallop! March!"
Bridge almost ran the length of the street to the corral. His pony must be rested by now, and a few miles to the north the gringo whose capture meant a thousand dollars to Bridge was on the road to liberty.
"I hate to do it," thought Bridge; "because, even if he is a bank robber, he's an American; but I need the money and in all probability the fellow is a scoundrel who should have been hanged long ago."
Over the trail to the north rode Captain Billy Byrne, secure in the belief that no pursuit would develop until after the opening hour of the bank in the morning, by which time he would be halfway on his return journey to Pesita's camp.
"Ol' man Pesita'll be some surprised when I show him what I got for him," mused Billy. "Say!" he exclaimed suddenly and aloud, "Why the devil should I take all this swag back to that yellow-faced yegg? Who pulled this thing off anyway? Why me, of course, and does anybody think Billy Byrne's boob enough to split with a guy that didn't have a hand in it at all. Split! Why the nut'll take it all!
"Nix! Me for the border. I couldn't do a thing with all this coin down in Rio, an' Bridgie'll be along there most any time. We can hit it up some in lil' ol' Rio on this bunch o' dough. Why, say kid, there must be a million here, from the weight of it."
A frown suddenly clouded his face. "Why did I take it?" he asked himself. "Was I crackin' a safe, or was I pullin' off something fine fer poor, bleedin' Mexico? If I was a-doin' that they ain't nothin' criminal in what I done—except to the guy that owned the coin. If I was just plain crackin' a safe on my own hook why then I'm a crook again an' I can't be that—no, not with that face of yours standin' out there so plain right in front of me, just as though you were there yourself, askin' me to remember an' be decent. God! Barbara—why wasn't I born for the likes of you, and not just a measly, ornery mucker like I am. Oh, hell! what is that that Bridge sings of Knibbs's:
There ain't no sweet Penelope somewhere that's longing much for me, But I can smell the blundering sea, and hear the rigging hum; And I can hear the whispering lips that fly before the out-bound ships, And I can hear the breakers on the sand a-calling "Come!"
Billy took off his hat and scratched his head.
"Funny," he thought, "how a girl and poetry can get a tough nut like me. I wonder what the guys that used to hang out in back of Kelly's 'ud say if they seen what was goin' on in my bean just now. They'd call me Lizzy, eh? Well, they wouldn't call me Lizzy more'n once. I may be gettin' soft in the head, but I'm all to the good with my dukes."
Speed is not conducive to sentimental thoughts and so Billy had unconsciously permitted his pony to drop into a lazy walk. There was no need for haste anyhow. No one knew yet that the bank had been robbed, or at least so Billy argued. He might, however, have thought differently upon the subject of haste could he have had a glimpse of the horseman in his rear—two miles behind him, now, but rapidly closing up the distance at a keen gallop, while he strained his eyes across the moonlit flat ahead in eager search for his quarry.
So absorbed was Billy Byrne in his reflections that his ears were deaf to the pounding of the hoofs of the pursuer's horse upon the soft dust of the dry road until Bridge was little more than a hundred yards from him. For the last half-mile Bridge had had the figure of the fugitive in full view and his mind had been playing rapidly with seductive visions of the one-thousand dollars reward—one-thousand dollars Mex, perhaps, but still quite enough to excite pleasant thoughts. At the first glimpse of the horseman ahead Bridge had reined his mount down to a trot that the noise of his approach might thereby be lessened. He had drawn his revolver from its holster, and was upon the point of putting spurs to his horse for a sudden dash upon the fugitive when the man ahead, finally attracted by the noise of the other's approach, turned in his saddle and saw him.
Neither recognized the other, and at Bridge's command of, "Hands up!" Billy, lightning-like in his quickness, drew and fired. The bullet raked Bridge's hat from his head but left him unscathed.
Billy had wheeled his pony around until he stood broadside toward Bridge. The latter fired scarce a second after Billy's shot had pinged so perilously close—fired at a perfect target but fifty yards away.
At the sound of the report the robber's horse reared and plunged, then, wheeling and tottering high upon its hind feet, fell backward. Billy, realizing that his mount had been hit, tried to throw himself from the saddle; but until the very moment that the beast toppled over the man was held by his cartridge belt which, as the animal first lunged, had caught over the high horn of the Mexican saddle.
The belt slipped from the horn as the horse was falling, and Billy succeeded in throwing himself a little to one side. One leg, however, was pinned beneath the animal's body and the force of the fall jarred the revolver from Billy's hand to drop just beyond his reach.
His carbine was in its boot at the horse's side, and the animal was lying upon it. Instantly Bridge rode to his side and covered him with his revolver.
"Don't move," he commanded, "or I'll be under the painful necessity of terminating your earthly endeavors right here and now."
"Well, for the love o' Mike!" cried the fallen bandit "You?"
Bridge was off his horse the instant that the familiar voice sounded in his ears.
"Billy!" he exclaimed. "Why—Billy—was it you who robbed the bank?"
Even as he spoke Bridge was busy easing the weight of the dead pony from Billy's leg.
"Anything broken?" he asked as the bandit struggled to free himself.
"Not so you could notice it," replied Billy, and a moment later he was on his feet. "Say, bo," he added, "it's a mighty good thing you dropped little pinto here, for I'd a sure got you my next shot. Gee! it makes me sweat to think of it. But about this bank robbin' business. You can't exactly say that I robbed a bank. That money was the enemy's resources, an' I just nicked their resources. That's war. That ain't robbery. I ain't takin' it for myself—it's for the cause—the cause o' poor, bleedin' Mexico," and Billy grinned a large grin.
"You took it for Pesita?" asked Bridge.
"Of course," replied Billy. "I won't get a jitney of it. I wouldn't take none of it, Bridge, honest. I'm on the square now."
"I know you are, Billy," replied the other; "but if you're caught you might find it difficult to convince the authorities of your highmindedness and your disinterestedness."
"Authorities!" scoffed Billy. "There ain't no authorities in Mexico. One bandit is just as good as another, and from Pesita to Carranza they're all bandits at heart. They ain't a one of 'em that gives two whoops in hell for poor, bleedin' Mexico—unless they can do the bleedin' themselves. It's dog eat dog here. If they caught me they'd shoot me whether I'd robbed their bank or not. What's that?" Billy was suddenly alert, straining his eyes back in the direction of Cuivaca.
"They're coming, Billy," said Bridge. "Take my horse—quick! You must get out of here in a hurry. The whole post is searching for you. I thought that they went toward the south, though. Some of them must have circled."
"What'll you do if I take your horse?" asked Billy.
"I can walk back," said Bridge, "it isn't far to town. I'll tell them that I had come only a short distance when my horse threw me and ran away. They'll believe it for they think I'm a rotten horseman—the two vaqueros who escorted me to town I mean."
Billy hesitated. "I hate to do it, Bridge," he said.
"You must, Billy," urged the other.
"If they find us here together it'll merely mean that the two of us will get it, for I'll stick with you, Billy, and we can't fight off a whole troop of cavalry out here in the open. If you take my horse we can both get out of it, and later I'll see you in Rio. Good-bye, Billy, I'm off for town," and Bridge turned and started back along the road on foot.
Billy watched him in silence for a moment. The truth of Bridge's statement of fact was so apparent that Billy was forced to accept the plan. A moment later he transferred the bags of loot to Bridge's pony, swung into the saddle, and took a last backward look at the diminishing figure of the man swinging along in the direction of Cuivaca.
"Say," he muttered to himself; "but you're a right one, bo," and wheeling to the north he clapped his spurs to his new mount and loped easily off into the night.
CHAPTER XI. BARBARA RELEASES A CONSPIRATOR
IT was a week later, yet Grayson still was growling about the loss of "that there Brazos pony." Grayson, the boss, and the boss's daughter were sitting upon the veranda of the ranchhouse when the foreman reverted to the subject.
"I knew I didn't have no business hirin' a man thet can't ride," he said. "Why thet there Brazos pony never did stumble, an' if he'd of stumbled he'd a-stood aroun' a year waitin' to be caught up agin. I jest cain't figger it out no ways how thet there tenderfoot bookkeeper lost him. He must a-shooed him away with a stick. An' saddle an' bridle an' all gone too. Doggone it!"
"I'm the one who should be peeved," spoke up the girl with a wry smile. "Brazos was my pony. He's the one you picked out for me to ride while I am here; but I am sure poor Mr. Bridge feels as badly about it as anyone, and I know that he couldn't help it. We shouldn't be too hard on him. We might just as well attempt to hold him responsible for the looting of the bank and the loss of the pay-roll money."
"Well," said Grayson, "I give him thet horse 'cause I knew he couldn't ride, an' thet was the safest horse in the cavvy. I wisht I'd given him Santa Anna instid—I wouldn't a-minded losin' him. There won't no one ride him anyhow he's thet ornery."
"The thing that surprises me most," remarked the boss, "is that Brazos doesn't come back. He was foaled on this range, and he's never been ridden anywhere else, has he?"
"He was foaled right here on this ranch," Grayson corrected him, "and he ain't never been more'n a hundred mile from it. If he ain't dead or stolen he'd a-ben back afore the bookkeeper was. It's almighty queer."
"What sort of bookkeeper is Mr. Bridge?" asked the girl.
"Oh, he's all right I guess," replied Grayson grudgingly. "A feller's got to be some good at something. He's probably one of these here paper-collar, cracker-fed college dudes thet don't know nothin' else 'cept writin' in books."
The girl rose, smiled, and moved away.
"I like Mr. Bridge, anyhow," she called back over her shoulder, "for whatever he may not be he is certainly a well-bred gentleman," which speech did not tend to raise Mr. Bridge in the estimation of the hard-fisted ranch foreman.
"Funny them greasers don't come in from the north range with thet bunch o' steers. They ben gone all day now," he said to the boss, ignoring the girl's parting sally.
Bridge sat tip-tilted against the front of the office building reading an ancient magazine which he had found within. His day's work was done and he was but waiting for the gong that would call him to the evening meal with the other employees of the ranch. The magazine failed to rouse his interest. He let it drop idly to his knees and with eyes closed reverted to his never-failing source of entertainment.
And then that slim, poetic guy he turned and looked me in the eye, "....It's overland and overland and overseas to—where?" "Most anywhere that isn't here," I says. His face went kind of queer. "The place we're in is always here. The other place is there."
Bridge stretched luxuriously. "'There,'" he repeated. "I've been searching for THERE for many years; but for some reason I can never get away from HERE. About two weeks of any place on earth and that place is just plain HERE to me, and I'm longing once again for THERE."
His musings were interrupted by a sweet feminine voice close by. Bridge did not open his eyes at once—he just sat there, listening.
As I was hiking past the woods, the cool and sleepy summer woods, I saw a guy a-talking to the sunshine in the air, Thinks I, "He's going to have a fit—I'll stick around and watch a bit," But he paid no attention, hardly knowing I was there.
Then the girl broke into a merry laugh and Bridge opened his eyes and came to his feet.
"I didn't know you cared for that sort of stuff," he said. "Knibbs writes man-verse. I shouldn't have imagined that it would appeal to a young lady."
"But it does, though," she replied; "at least to me. There's a swing to it and a freedom that 'gets me in the eye.'"
Again she laughed, and when this girl laughed, harder-headed and much older men than Mr. L. Bridge felt strange emotions move within their breasts.
For a week Barbara had seen a great deal of the new bookkeeper. Aside from her father he was the only man of culture and refinement of which the rancho could boast, or, as the rancho would have put it, be ashamed of.
She had often sought the veranda of the little office and lured the new bookkeeper from his work, and on several occasions had had him at the ranchhouse. Not only was he an interesting talker; but there was an element of mystery about him which appealed to the girl's sense of romance.
She knew that he was a gentleman born and reared, and she often found herself wondering what tragic train of circumstances had set him adrift among the flotsam of humanity's wreckage. Too, the same persistent conviction that she had known him somewhere in the past that possessed her father clung to her mind; but she could not place him.
"I overheard your dissertation on HERE AND THERE," said the girl. "I could not very well help it—it would have been rude to interrupt a conversation." Her eyes sparkled mischievously and her cheeks dimpled.
"You wouldn't have been interrupting a conversation," objected Bridge, smiling; "you would have been turning a monologue into a conversation."
"But it was a conversation," insisted the girl. "The wanderer was conversing with the bookkeeper. You are a victim of wanderlust, Mr. L. Bridge—don't deny it. You hate bookkeeping, or any other such prosaic vocation as requires permanent residence in one place."
"Come now," expostulated the man. "That is hardly fair. Haven't I been here a whole week?"
They both laughed.
"What in the world can have induced you to remain so long?" cried Barbara. "How very much like an old timer you must feel—one of the oldest inhabitants."
"I am a regular aborigine," declared Bridge; but his heart would have chosen another reply. It would have been glad to tell the girl that there was a very real and a very growing inducement to remain at El Orobo Rancho. The man was too self-controlled, however, to give way to the impulses of his heart.
At first he had just liked the girl, and been immensely glad of her companionship because there was so much that was common to them both—a love for good music, good pictures, and good literature—things Bridge hadn't had an opportunity to discuss with another for a long, long time.
And slowly he had found delight in just sitting and looking at her. He was experienced enough to realize that this was a dangerous symptom, and so from the moment he had been forced to acknowledge it to himself he had been very careful to guard his speech and his manner in the girl's presence.
He found pleasure in dreaming of what might have been as he sat watching the girl's changing expression as different moods possessed her; but as for permitting a hope, even, of realization of his dreams—ah, he was far too practical for that, dreamer though he was.
As the two talked Grayson passed. His rather stern face clouded as he saw the girl and the new bookkeeper laughing there together.
"Ain't you got nothin' to do?" he asked Bridge.
"Yes, indeed," replied the latter.
"Then why don't you do it?" snapped Grayson.
"I am," said Bridge.
"Mr. Bridge is entertaining me," interrupted the girl, before Grayson could make any rejoinder. "It is my fault—I took him from his work. You don't mind, do you, Mr. Grayson?"
Grayson mumbled an inarticulate reply and went his way.
"Mr. Grayson does not seem particularly enthusiastic about me," laughed Bridge.
"No," replied the girl, candidly; "but I think it's just because you can't ride."
"Can't ride!" ejaculated Bridge. "Why, haven't I been riding ever since I came here?"
"Mr. Grayson doesn't consider anything in the way of equestrianism riding unless the ridden is perpetually seeking the life of the rider," explained Barbara. "Just at present he is terribly put out because you lost Brazos. He says Brazos never stumbled in his life, and even if you had fallen from his back he would have stood beside you waiting for you to remount him. You see he was the kindest horse on the ranch—especially picked for me to ride. However in the world DID you lose him, Mr. Bridge?"
The girl was looking full at the man as she propounded her query. Bridge was silent. A faint flush overspread his face. He had not before known that the horse was hers. He couldn't very well tell her the truth, and he wouldn't lie to her, so he made no reply.
Barbara saw the flush and noted the man's silence. For the first time her suspicions were aroused, yet she would not believe that this gentle, amiable drifter could be guilty of any crime greater than negligence or carelessness. But why his evident embarrassment now? The girl was mystified. For a moment or two they sat in silence, then Barbara rose.
"I must run along back now," she explained. "Papa will be wondering what has become of me."
"Yes," said Bridge, and let her go. He would have been glad to tell her the truth; but he couldn't do that without betraying Billy. He had heard enough to know that Francisco Villa had been so angered over the bold looting of the bank in the face of a company of his own soldiers that he would stop at nothing to secure the person of the thief once his identity was known. Bridge was perfectly satisfied with the ethics of his own act on the night of the bank robbery. He knew that the girl would have applauded him, and that Grayson himself would have done what Bridge did had a like emergency confronted the ranch foreman; but to have admitted complicity in the escape of the fugitive would have been to have exposed himself to the wrath of Villa, and at the same time revealed the identity of the thief. "Nor," thought Bridge, "would it get Brazos back for Barbara."
It was after dark when the vaqueros Grayson had sent to the north range returned to the ranch. They came empty-handed and slowly for one of them supported a wounded comrade on the saddle before him. They rode directly to the office where Grayson and Bridge were going over some of the business of the day, and when the former saw them his brow clouded for he knew before he heard their story what had happened.
"Who done it?" he asked, as the men filed into the office, half carrying the wounded man.
"Some of Pesita's followers," replied Benito.
"Did they git the steers, too?" inquired Grayson.
"Part of them—we drove off most and scattered them. We saw the Brazos pony, too," and Benito looked from beneath heavy lashes in the direction of the bookkeeper.
"Where?" asked Grayson.
"One of Pesita's officers rode him—an Americano. Tony and I saw this same man in Cuivaca the night the bank was robbed, and today he was riding the Brazos pony." Again the dark eyes turned toward Bridge.
Grayson was quick to catch the significance of the Mexican's meaning. The more so as it was directly in line with suspicions which he himself had been nursing since the robbery.
During the colloquy the boss entered the office. He had heard the returning vaqueros ride into the ranch and noting that they brought no steers with them had come to the office to hear their story. Barbara, spurred by curiosity, accompanied her father.
"You heard what Benito says?" asked Grayson, turning toward his employer.
The latter nodded. All eyes were upon Bridge.
"Well," snapped Grayson, "what you gotta say fer yourself? I ben suspectin' you right along. I knew derned well that that there Brazos pony never run off by hisself. You an' that other crook from the States framed this whole thing up pretty slick, didn'tcha? Well, we'll—"
"Wait a moment, wait a moment, Grayson," interrupted the boss. "Give Mr. Bridge a chance to explain. You're making a rather serious charge against him without any particularly strong proof to back your accusation."
"Oh, that's all right," exclaimed Bridge, with a smile. "I have known that Mr. Grayson suspected me of implication in the robbery; but who can blame him—a man who can't ride might be guilty of almost anything."
Grayson sniffed. Barbara took a step nearer Bridge. She had been ready to doubt him herself only an hour or so ago; but that was before he had been accused. Now that she found others arrayed against him her impulse was to come to his defense.
"You didn't do it, did you, Mr. Bridge?" Her tone was almost pleading.
"If you mean robbing the bank," he replied; "I did not Miss Barbara. I knew no more about it until after it was over than Benito or Tony—in fact they were the ones who discovered it while I was still asleep in my room above the bank."
"Well, how did the robber git thet there Brazos pony then?" demanded Grayson savagely. "Thet's what I want to know."
"You'll have to ask him, Mr. Grayson," replied Bridge.
"Villa'll ask him, when he gits holt of him," snapped Grayson; "but I reckon he'll git all the information out of you thet he wants first. He'll be in Cuivaca tomorrer, an' so will you."
"You mean that you are going to turn me over to General Villa?" asked Bridge. "You are going to turn an American over to that butcher knowing that he'll be shot inside of twenty-four hours?"
"Shootin's too damned good fer a horse thief," replied Grayson.
Barbara turned impulsively toward her father. "You won't let Mr. Grayson do that?" she asked.
"Mr. Grayson knows best how to handle such an affair as this, Barbara," replied her father. "He is my superintendent, and I have made it a point never to interfere with him."
"You will let Mr. Bridge be shot without making an effort to save him?" she demanded.
"We do not know that he will be shot," replied the ranch owner. "If he is innocent there is no reason why he should be punished. If he is guilty of implication in the Cuivaca bank robbery he deserves, according to the rules of war, to die, for General Villa, I am told, considers that a treasonable act. Some of the funds upon which his government depends for munitions of war were there—they were stolen and turned over to the enemies of Mexico."
"And if we interfere we'll turn Villa against us," interposed Grayson. "He ain't any too keen for Americans as it is. Why, if this fellow was my brother I'd hev to turn him over to the authorities."
"Well, I thank God," exclaimed Bridge fervently, "that in addition to being shot by Villa I don't have to endure the added disgrace of being related to you, and I'm not so sure that I shall be hanged by Villa," and with that he wiped the oil lamp from the table against which he had been leaning, and leaped across the room for the doorway.
Barbara and her father had been standing nearest the exit, and as the girl realized the bold break for liberty the man was making, she pushed her father to one side and threw open the door.
Bridge was through it in an instant, with a parting, "God bless you, little girl!" as he passed her. Then the door was closed with a bang. Barbara turned the key, withdrew it from the lock and threw it across the darkened room.
Grayson and the unwounded Mexicans leaped after the fugitive only to find their way barred by the locked door. Outside Bridge ran to the horses standing patiently with lowered heads awaiting the return of their masters. In an instant he was astride one of them, and lashing the others ahead of him with a quirt he spurred away into the night.
By the time Grayson and the Mexicans had wormed their way through one of the small windows of the office the new bookkeeper was beyond sight and earshot.
As the ranch foreman was saddling up with several of his men in the corral to give chase to the fugitive the boss strolled in and touched him on the arm.
"Mr. Grayson," he said, "I have made it a point never to interfere with you; but I am going to ask you now not to pursue Mr. Bridge. I shall be glad if he makes good his escape. Barbara was right—he is a fellow-American. We cannot turn him over to Villa, or any other Mexican to be murdered."
Grumblingly Grayson unsaddled. "Ef you'd seen what I've seen around here," he said, "I guess you wouldn't be so keen to save this feller's hide."
"What do you mean?" asked the boss.
"I mean that he's ben tryin' to make love to your daughter."
The older man laughed. "Don't be a fool, Grayson," he said, and walked away.
An hour later Barbara was strolling up and down before the ranchhouse in the cool and refreshing air of the Chihuahua night. Her mind was occupied with disquieting reflections of the past few hours. Her pride was immeasurably hurt by the part impulse had forced her to take in the affair at the office. Not that she regretted that she had connived in the escape of Bridge; but it was humiliating that a girl of her position should have been compelled to play so melodramatic a part before Grayson and his Mexican vaqueros.
Then, too, was she disappointed in Bridge. She had looked upon him as a gentleman whom misfortune and wanderlust had reduced to the lowest stratum of society. Now she feared that he belonged to that substratum which lies below the lowest which society recognizes as a part of itself, and which is composed solely of the criminal class.
It was hard for Barbara to realize that she had associated with a thief—just for a moment it was hard, until recollection forced upon her the unwelcome fact of the status of another whom she had known—to whom she had given her love. The girl did not wince at the thought—instead she squared her shoulders and raised her chin.
"I am proud of him, whatever he may have been," she murmured; but she was not thinking of the new bookkeeper. When she did think again of Bridge it was to be glad that he had escaped—"for he is an American, like myself."
"Well!" exclaimed a voice behind her. "You played us a pretty trick, Miss Barbara."
The girl turned to see Grayson approaching. To her surprise he seemed to hold no resentment whatsoever. She greeted him courteously.
"I couldn't let you turn an American over to General Villa," she said, "no matter what he had done."
"I liked your spirit," said the man. "You're the kind o' girl I ben lookin' fer all my life—one with nerve an' grit, an' you got 'em both. You liked thet bookkeepin' critter, an' he wasn't half a man. I like you an' I am a man, ef I do say so myself."
The girl drew back in astonishment.
"Mr. Grayson!" she exclaimed. "You are forgetting yourself."
"No I ain't," he cried hoarsely. "I love you an' I'm goin' to have you. You'd love me too ef you knew me better."
He took a step forward and grasped her arm, trying to draw her to him. The girl pushed him away with one hand, and with the other struck him across the face.
Grayson dropped her arm, and as he did so she drew herself to her full height and looked him straight in the eyes.
"You may go now," she said, her voice like ice. "I shall never speak of this to anyone—provided you never attempt to repeat it."
The man made no reply. The blow in the face had cooled his ardor temporarily, but had it not also served another purpose?—to crystallize it into a firm and inexorable resolve.
When he had departed Barbara turned and entered the house.
CHAPTER XII. BILLY TO THE RESCUE
IT WAS nearly ten o'clock the following morning when Barbara, sitting upon the veranda of the ranchhouse, saw her father approaching from the direction of the office. His face wore a troubled expression which the girl could not but note.
"What's the matter, Papa?" she asked, as he sank into a chair at her side.
"Your self-sacrifice of last evening was all to no avail," he replied. "Bridge has been captured by Villistas."
"What?" cried the girl. "You can't mean it—how did you learn?"
"Grayson just had a phone message from Cuivaca," he explained. "They only repaired the line yesterday since Pesita's men cut it last month. This was our first message. And do you know, Barbara, I can't help feeling sorry. I had hoped that he would get away."
"So had I," said the girl.
Her father was eyeing her closely to note the effect of his announcement upon her; but he could see no greater concern reflected than that which he himself felt for a fellow-man and an American who was doomed to death at the hands of an alien race, far from his own land and his own people.
"Can nothing be done?" she asked.
"Absolutely," he replied with finality. "I have talked it over with Grayson and he assures me that an attempt at intervention upon our part might tend to antagonize Villa, in which case we are all as good as lost. He is none too fond of us as it is, and Grayson believes, and not without reason, that he would welcome the slightest pretext for withdrawing the protection of his favor. Instantly he did that we should become the prey of every marauding band that infests the mountains. Not only would Pesita swoop down upon us, but those companies of freebooters which acknowledge nominal loyalty to Villa would be about our ears in no time. No, dear, we may do nothing. The young man has made his bed, and now I am afraid that he will have to lie in it alone."