Starr, of the Desert
B. M Bower
Part 3 out of 4
From the desert I come to thee,
On my Arab shod with fire--
"Oh, I'm getting absolutely mushy!" she muttered angrily. "If I've
reached the point where I can't see a spot of dust without getting
heart-failure over it, why it's time I was shut up somewhere. What are
you lolling around me for, Pat? Go on and tend to your goats, why don't
you? And do get off my skirt!"
Pat sprang up as though she had struck him; gave her an injured glance
that was perfectly maddening to Helen May, whose conscience was
sufficient punishment, and went slinking off down the slope. Half-way to
the band he stopped and sat down on his haunches in the hot sun, as
dejected a dog as ever was made to suffer because his mistress was
displeased with herself.
Helen May sat there scowling out across the wide spaces, while romance
and adventure, and something more, rode steadily nearer, heralded by the
small gray cloud. When she was sure that a horseman was coming, she
perversely removed herself to another spot where she would not be seen.
And there she sat, out of sight from below and thus fancying herself
undiscovered, refusing so much as a sly glance around her granite shield.
For if there was anything which Helen May hated more than another it was
the possibility of being thought cheaply sentimental, mushy, as the
present generation vividly puts it. Also she was trying to break herself
of humming that old desert love-song all the while. Vic was beginning to
"kid" her unmercifully about it, for one thing. To think that she should
sing it without thinking a word about it, just because she happened to
see a little dust! She would not look. She would not!
Starr might have passed her by and gone on to the cabin if he had not,
through a pair of powerful binoculars, been observing her when she sent
Pat off, and when she got up and went over to the other ledge and sat
down. Through the glasses he had seen her feet crossed, toes up, just
past the nose of the rock, and he could see the spread of her skirt.
Luckily, he could not read her mind. He therefore gave a yank at the
lead-rope in his hand and addressed a few biting remarks to a
white-lashed, blue-eyed pinto trailing reluctantly behind Rabbit; and
rode forward with some eagerness toward the ridge.
"'Sleep?" he greeted cheerfully, when he had forced the two horses to
scramble up to the shade of the ledge, and had received no attention
whatever from the person just beyond. The tan boots were still crossed,
and not so much as a toe of them moved to show that the owner heard him.
Starr knew that he had made noise enough, so far as that went.
"Why, no, I'm not asleep. What is it?" came crisply, after a
"It ain't anything at all," Starr retorted, and swung Rabbit into the
shade which Helen May had left. He dismounted, sat himself down with his
back against a rock, and proceeded to roll a cigarette. By no means
would he intrude upon the privacy of a lady, though the quiet, crossed
feet and the placid folds of the khaki skirt told him that she was
sitting there quietly--pouting about something, most likely, he diagnosed
her silence shrewdly. Well, it was early, and so long as he reached a
certain point by full dark, he was not neglecting anything. As a matter
of fact, he told himself philosophically, he really wanted to kill half a
day in a perfectly plausible manner. There was no hurry, no hurry at all.
Pat looked back at him ingratiatingly, and Starr called. Pat came running
in long leaps, nearly wagging himself in two because someone he liked was
going to be nice to him. Starr petted him and talked to him and pulled
his ears and slapped him on the ribs, and Pat in his joy persisted in
trying to lick Starr's cheek.
"Quit it! Lay down and be a doormat, then. You've got welcome wrote all
over you. And much as I like welcome, I hate to be licked."
Pat lay down, and Starr eyed the tan boot toes. They moved impatiently,
but they did not uncross. Starr smiled to himself and proceeded to carry
on a one-sided conversation with Pat, and to smoke his cigarette.
"Sick, over there?" he inquired casually after perhaps five minutes;
either of them would have sworn it ten or fifteen.
"Why, no," chirped the crisp voice. "Why?"
"Seemed polite to ask, is all," Starr confessed. "I didn't think you
was." He finished his smoke in the silence that followed. Then, because
he himself owned a perverse streak, he took his binoculars from their
case and began to study the low-lying ridge in the distance, in a pocket
of which nestled the Medina ranch buildings. He was glad this ridge
commanded all but the "draws" and hollows lying transversely between here
and Medina's place. It was Medina whom he had been advised by his chief
to watch particularly, when Starr had found a means of laying his clues
before that astute gentleman. If he could sit within ten feet of Helen
May while he kept an eye on that country over there, all the better.
He saw a horseman ride up out of a hollow and disappear almost
immediately into another. The man seemed to be coming over in this
direction, though Starr could not be sure. He watched for a reappearance
of the rider on high ground, but he saw no more of the fellow. So after a
little he took down the glasses to scan the country as a whole.
It was then that he glanced toward the other rock and saw that the tan
boots had moved out of sight. He believed that he would have heard her if
she moved away, and so he kept his eyes turned upon the corner of the
rock where her feet had shown a few minutes before.
A SHOT FROM THE PINNACLE
"Why--did some one come with you, Mr. Starr? I thought you were alone."
Starr turned his head and saw Helen May standing quite close, on the
other side of him. She was glancing inquiringly from him to the pinto
pony, and she was smiling the least little bit, though her eyes had a
shamed, self-conscious look. Starr eyed her keenly, a bit reproachfully,
and she blushed.
"I thought maybe you'd come around where I was," she defended herself
lamely. "It--seemed cooler there--"
"Yes, I noticed it was pretty cool, from the tone of your voice."
"Well--oh, I was just nursing a grouch, and I couldn't stop all at once,"
Helen May surrendered suddenly, sitting down beside him and crossing her
feet. "I've read in stories how sheepherders go crazy, and I know now
just why that is. They see so few people that they don't know how to act
when some one does come along. They get so they hate themselves and
everybody else. I had just finished abusing poor old Pat till he went
off and sulked too."
"I thought probably you and Pat had just had a run-in, the way he acted."
Starr went back to scanning that part of the mesa where he had glimpsed
the rider. He could not afford to forget business in the pleasure of
talking aimless, trivial things with Helen May.
"What are you looking for?"
"Stock," said Starr, falling back on the standard excuse of the
"And _what's_ the idea of two saddle-horses and two saddles and two
bridles?" Helen May's voice was as simply curious as a child's.
"The idea is that you're going to ride instead of walk from now on. It's
an outfit I got from a fellow that was leaving. He borrowed money from me
and left his horse and saddle, for a kind of security. I didn't want it,
but he had to leave 'em somewhere. So I thought you might as well keep
the horse and use it till he comes back, or something." Starr did very
well with this explanation; much better than he had done in explaining
Pat. The truth was that he had bought the horse for the express purpose
of giving it to Helen May; just as he had bought the dog.
Helen May studied his face while he studied the distant plain. She
thought he acted as though he didn't care much whether she kept the
horse or not, and for that reason, and because his explanation had
sounded like truth, she hesitated over refusing the offer, though she
felt that she ought to refuse.
"It ain't right for you to be out here afoot," said Starr, as though he
had read her thoughts. "It's bad enough for you to be here at all. What
ever possessed you to do such a crazy thing, anyhow?"
"Well, sometimes people can't choose. Dad got the notion first. And
then--when he died--Vic and I just went ahead with it."
"Did he know anything about this country? Did he know--what chances you'd
be taking?" Starr was trying to choose his words so that they would
impress her without alarming her. It angered him to have to worry over
the girl's welfare and to keep that worry to himself.
"What chances, for gracious sake? I never saw such a mild, perfectly
monotonous life. Why, there are more chances in Los Angeles every time a
person goes down town. It's deadly dull here, and it's too lonesome for
words, and I hate it. But as for taking chances--" Her voice was frankly
contemptuous of the idea.
"Chances of going broke. It takes experience--"
"Oh, as to that, it's partly a matter of health," said Helen May
lightly. "I have to live where the climate--"
"You could live in Albuquerque, or some other live town; close to it,
anyway. You don't have to stick away down here, where--"
"I don't see as it matters. So long as it isn't Los Angeles, no place
appeals to me. And dad had bought the improvements here, so--"
"I'll pay you for the improvements, if that's all," Starr said shortly.
Helen May laughed. "That sounds exactly as though you want to get me out
of the country," she challenged.
Starr did not rise to the bait. He took another long look for the
horseman, saw not so much as a flurry of dust, and slid the glasses into
"I brought out that carbine I was speaking about. And the shells that go
with it. I'm kind of a gun fiend, I guess. I'm always accumulating a lot
of shooting irons I never use. I run across a six-shooter and belt, too.
Come here, Rabbit!"
Rabbit came, and Starr untied the weapons, smiling boyishly. "You may as
well be using 'em; they'll only rust, kicking around in the shack. Buckle
this around you. I punched another hole or two, so the belt would come
within a mile or so of fitting. You want to wear that every time you go
out on the range. The time you leave it home is the very time when you'll
see a coyote or something.
"And if you expect to get rich in the goat business, you never want to
pass up a coyote. There's a bounty on 'em, for one thing, because they do
lots of damage among sheep and goats. And for another," he added
impressively, "the rabies that's been epidemic on the Coast is spreading.
You've maybe read about it. A rabid coyote would come right at you, and
you know the consequences. Or it would bite Pat, and then Pat would
"Oh!" Helen May had turned a sickly shade. Her eyes went anxiously over
the slope as though she half expected something of the sort to happen
then and there.
"That's why," said Starr solemnly, looking down into her face, "I'm kinda
worried about you ranging around afoot and without a gun--"
"But nobody else has even mentioned--"
"Everybody else goes prepared, and they're inclined to take chances as a
matter of course. I reckon they think you know all about rabies being in
the country. This has always been a scrappy kinda place, remember, and
folks are used to packing guns and using 'em when the case demands it.
You wear this six-gun, lady, and keep your eyes open from now on. I've
got another one for Vic; an automatic. Now we'll go down here in the
shade and practice shooting. I brought plenty of shells, and I want to
learn you how to handle a gun."
Silently she followed him down the slope on the side toward the Basin. He
stopped beside the pinto, took it by the bridle-reins and, whipping out
his gun, fired it once to test the horse. The pinto twitched its ears at
the sound and looked at Starr. Starr laughed.
"I'll learn you to shoot from horseback," he called back to Helen May.
"He's broke to it, I can see now."
"Oh, I wonder if I could! Don't tell Vic, will you? I'd like to take
him by surprise. Boys are so conceited and self-sufficient! You'd
think Vic was my grandfather, the way he lords it over me. First of
all, what is the right way to get on a horse? I wish you'd teach me
about riding, too."
This sort of instruction grew absorbing to both. Before either guessed
how the time had flown, the sun stood straight overhead; and Pat,
standing in front of her with an expectant look in his eyes and an
occasional wag of his stubby tail, reminded Helen May that it was time
for lunch. They had used almost a full box of shells, and Helen May had
succeeded in shooting from the back of the pinto and in hitting a certain
small hummock of pure sand twice in six shots. She was tremendously
proud of the feat, and she took no pains to conceal her pride. She wanted
to start in on another box of shells, but Pat's eyes were so reproachful,
and her sense of hospitality was so urgent that she decided to wait until
they had eaten the lunch she had brought with her.
The rocks which had cast a shadow were now baking in the glare, and the
sand where Helen May and Starr had sat was radiating heat waves. Starr
took another long look down toward Medina's ranch through his field
glasses, while Helen May went to find a comfortable bit of shade.
"If you'll come over this way, Mr. Starr," she called abruptly, "I'll
give you a sandwich. It's hot everywhere to-day, but this is a little
better than out in the sun."
Starr took the glasses down from his eyes and let them dangle by their
cord while he walked over the nose of the ridge to where she was
waiting for him.
Half-way there, a streak of fire seemed to sear his arm near his
shoulder. Starr knew the feeling well enough. He staggered and went
down headlong in a clump of greasewood, and at the same instant the
report of a rifle came clearly from the high pinnacle at the head of
Helen May came running, her face white with horror, for she had seen
Starr fall just as the sound of the shot came to tell her why. She did
not cry out, but she rushed to where he lay half concealed in the bushes.
When she came near him, she stopped short. For Starr was lying on his
stomach with his head up and elbows in the sand, steadying the glasses to
his eyes that he might search that pinnacle.
"W-what made you fall down like that?" Helen May cried exasperatedly.
"I--I thought you were shot!"
"I am, to a certain extent," Starr told her unconcernedly. "Kneel down
here beside me and act scared, will you? And in a minute I want you to
climb on the pinto and ride around behind them rocks and wait for me.
Take Rabbit with you. Act like you was going for help, or was scared
and running away from a corpse. You get me? I'll crawl over there after
"W-why? Are you hurt so you can't walk?"
Helen May did not have to act; she was scared quite enough for
"Oh, I could walk, but walking ain't healthy right now. Jump up now and
climb your horse like you was expecting to ride him down to a whisper. Go
on--beat it. And when you get outa sight of the pinnacle, stay outa
There were several questions which Helen May wanted to ask, but she only
gave him a hasty, imploring glance which Starr did not see at all, since
his eyes were focussed on the pinnacle. She ran to the pinto and scared
him so that he jumped away from her. Starr heard and glanced impatiently
back at her. He saw that she had managed to get the reins and was
mounting with all the haste and all the awkwardness he could possibly
expect of her, and he grinned and returned to his scrutiny of the peak.
Whatever he saw he kept to himself; but presently he began to wriggle
backward, keeping the greasewood clump, and afterwards certain rocks and
little ridges, between himself and a view of the point he had fixed upon
as the spot where the shooter had stood.
When he had rounded the first rock ledge he got up and looked for Helen
May, and found her standing a couple of rods off, watching him anxiously.
He smiled reassuringly at her while he dusted his trousers with the flat
of his hands.
"Fine and dandy," he said. "Whoever took a pot-shot at me thinks he got
me first crack. See? Now listen, lady. That maybe was some herder out
gunning for coyotes, and maybe he was gunning for me. I licked a herder
that ranges over that way, and he maybe thought he'd play even. But
anyway, don't say anything about it to anybody, will you. I kinda--"
"Why not? If he shot at you, he wanted to kill you. And that's murder; he
ought to be--"
"Now, you know you said yourself that herders go crazy. I don't want to
get the poor boob into trouble. Let's not say anything about it. I've got
to go now; I've stayed longer than I meant to, as it is. Have Vic put
that halter that's on the saddle on the pinto, and tie the rope to it and
let it drag. He won't go away, and you can catch him without any bother.
If Vic don't know how to set the saddle, you take notice just how it's
fixed when you take it off. I meant to show you how, but I can't stop
now. And don't go anywhere, not even to the mail box, without Pat or your
six-gun, or both. Come here, Rabbit, you old scoundrel!
"I wish I could stay," he added, swinging up to the saddle and looking
down at her anxiously. "Don't let Vic monkey with that automatic till I
come and show him how to use it. I--"
"You said you were shot," said Helen May, staring at him enigmatically
from under her lashes. "Are you?"
"Not much; burnt a streak on my arm, nothing to bother about. Now
remember and don't leave your gun--"
"I don't believe it was because you licked a herder. What made somebody
shoot at you? Was it--on account of Pat?"
"Pat? No, I don't see what the dog would have to do with it. It was some
half-baked herder, shooting maybe because he heard us shoot and thought
we was using him for a target. You can't," Starr declared firmly, "tell
what fool idea they'll get into their heads. It was our shooting, most
likely. Now I must go. Adios, I'll see yuh before long."
"Well, but what--"
Helen May found herself speaking to the scenery. Starr was gone with
Rabbit at a sliding trot down the slope that kept the ridge between him
and the pinnacle. She stood staring after him blankly, her hat askew on
the back of her head, and her lips parted in futile astonishment. She did
not in the least realize just what Starr's extreme caution had meant. She
had no inkling of the real gravity of the situation, for her ignorance of
the lawless possibilities of that big, bare country insulated her against
What struck her most forcibly was the cool manner in which he had ordered
her to act a part, and the unhesitating manner in which she had obeyed
him. He ordered her about, she thought, as though he had a right; and she
obeyed as though she recognized that right.
She watched him as long as he was in sight, and tried to guess where he
was going and what he meant to do, and what was his business--what he did
for a living. He must be a rancher, since he had said he was looking for
stock; but it was queer he had never told her where his ranch lay, or how
far off it was, or anything about it.
After a little it occurred to her that Starr would want the man who had
shot at him to think she had left that neighborhood, so she called to
Pat and had him drive the goats around where they could not be seen from
Then she sat down and ate her sandwiches thoughtfully, with long,
meditative intervals between bites. She regarded the pinto curiously,
wondering if Starr had really taken him as security for a debt, and
wishing that she had asked him what its name was. It was queer, the way
he rode up unexpectedly every few days, always bringing something he
thought she needed, and seeming to take it for granted that she would
accept everything he offered. It was much queerer that she did accept
everything without argument or hesitation. For that matter, everything
that concerned Starr was queer, from Helen May's point of view.
HELEN MAY UNDERSTANDS
Pat, lying at her feet and licking his lips contentedly after his bone
and the crusts of her sandwich, raised his head suddenly and rumbled a
growl somewhere deep in his chest. His upper lip lifted and showed his
teeth wickedly, and the hair on the back of his neck stood out in a ruff
that made him look a different dog.
Helen May felt a cold shiver all up and down her spine. She had never
seen Pat, nor any other dog for that matter, look like that. It was much
more terrifying than that mysterious shot which had effected Starr so
strangely. Pat was staring directly behind her, and his eyes had a
greenish tinge in the iris, and the white part was all pink and
bloodshot. Helen May thought he must have rabies or something; or else a
rabid coyote was up on the ridge behind her. She wanted to scream, but
she was afraid; she was afraid to look behind her, even.
Pat got up and stood digging his toe nails into the earth in the most
horribly suggestive way imaginable. The green light in his eyes
terrified her. His ruff bristled bigger on his neck. He looked ready to
spring at something. Helen May was too scared to move so much as a
finger. She waited, and her heart began beating so hard in her throat
that it nearly suffocated her. She never once thought of the six-shooter
which Starr had given her. She did not think of anything, except that a
rabid coyote was right behind her, and in a minute Pat would jump at it,
if it did not first jump at her! And then Pat would be bitten, and would
go mad and bite her and Vic, and they'd all die horribly of hydrophobia.
"Ah--is this a modern, dramatic version of Beauty and the Beast? If so,
it is a masterpiece in depicting perfect repose on the part of Beauty,
while the Beast vivifies the protective instinct of the stronger toward
the weaker. Speaking in the common parlance, if you will call off your
dog, Miss Stevenson, I might be persuaded to venture within hand-shaking
distance." A little laugh, that was much more humorous than the words,
followed the speech.
Helen May felt as though she were going to faint. "Pat!" she tried to say
admonishingly; but her voice was a weak whisper that did not carry ten
feet. She pulled herself together and tried again. "Pat, lie down!"
Pat turned his bead a trifle and sent her a tolerant glance, but the
hair did not lie down on his neck, and the growl did not cease to rumble
in his throat.
"Pat!" Helen May began to recover a little from the reaction. "Come here
to me! I--don't think he'll bite you, Mr. Sommers. It's--it's only
Mexicans that he's supposed to hate. I--I didn't know it was you."
Holman Sommers, being careful to keep a safe distance between himself and
Pat, came around to where he could see her face. "As a matter of fact,"
he began, "it's really my sister who came to visit you. Your brother
informed us that you were out here, and I came to tell you. Why, did I
frighten you so badly, Miss Stevenson? Your face is absolutely colorless.
What did I do to so terrify you? I surely never intended--" His eyes were
remorseful as he stood and looked at her.
"It was just the way Pat acted. I--I'd been hearing about rabid coyotes,
and I thought one was behind me, Pat acted so queer. Lie down, Pat!"
Holman Sommers spoke to the dog ingratiatingly, but Pat did not exhibit
any tail-wagging desire for friendly acquaintance. He slunk over to
Helen May and flattened himself on his belly with his nose on his paws,
and his eyes, that still showed greenish lights and bloodshot whites,
fixed on the man.
"It may be," said Sommers judgmatically, "that he has been taught to
resent strangers coming in close proximity to the animals he has in
charge. A great many dogs are so trained, and are therefore in no wise to
blame for exhibiting a certain degree of ferocity. The canine mind is
wholly lacking in the power of deduction, its intelligence consisting
rather of a highly developed instinctive faculty for retaining
impressions which invariably express themselves in some concrete form
such as hate, fear, joy, affection and like primitive emotions. Pat, for
instance, has been taught to regard strangers as interlopers. He
therefore resents the presence of all strangers, and has no mental
faculty for distinguishing between strangers, as such, and actual
intruders whose presence is essentially undesirable."
Helen May gave a little, half-hysterical laugh, and Holman Sommers looked
at her keenly, as a doctor sometimes looks at a patient.
"I am intensely sorry that my coming frightened you," he said gently.
Then he laughed. "I am also deeply humiliated at the idea of being
mistaken, in the broad light of midday, for a rabid coyote. May I ask
just wherein lies the resemblance?"
Helen May looked at him, saw the dancing light in his eyes and a mirthful
quirk of his lips, and blushed while she smiled.
"It's just that I happened to be thinking about them," she said,
instinctively belittling her fear. "And then I never saw Pat act the way
he's acting now."
Holman Sommers regarded the dog with the same keen, studying look he had
given Helen May. Pat did not take it as calmly, however, as Helen May had
done. Pat lifted his upper lip again and snarled with an extremely
concrete depiction of the primitive emotion, hate.
"There _are_ such things as rabid coyotes, aren't there? Just--do you
know how they act, and how a person could tell when something has caught
the disease from them?"
"I think I may safely assert that there undoubtedly are rabid coyotes in
the country. As a matter of fact, and speaking relatively, they have
been, and probably still are, somewhat of a menace to stock running
abroad without a herder amply provided with the means of protecting his
charge. At the same time I may point with pardonable pride to the
concerted action of both State and Stock Association to rid the country
of these pests. So far we feel highly gratified at the success which has
attended our efforts. I gravely doubt whether you would now find, in this
whole county, a single case of infection. But on the other hand, I could
not, of course, venture to state unqualifiedly that there may not be
certain isolated cases--"
"Pat! Do stop that growling! What ails you, anyway? I never saw him act
that way before. I wonder if he could possibly be--" She looked at
"Infected?" he finished for her understandingly. "As a matter of fact,
that may be possible, though I should not consider it altogether
probable. Since the period of incubation varies from three weeks to six
months, as in man, the dog may possibly have been infected before coming
into your possession. If that were true, you would have no means of
discovering the fact until he exhibits certain premonitory symptoms,
which may or may not form in themselves conclusive evidence of the
presence of the disease."
Helen May got up from the rock and moved away, eyeing Pat suspiciously.
Pat got up and followed her, keeping a watchful eye on Sommers.
"What are the symptoms, for gracious sake?" she demanded fretfully,
worried beyond caring how she chose her words for Holman Sommers. "His
eyes look queer, don't you think?"
"Since you ask me, and since the subject is not one to be dismissed
lightly, I will say that I have been studying the dog's attitude with
some slight measure of concern," Holman Sommers admitted guardedly. "The
suffused eyeball is sometimes found in the premonitory stage of the
disease, after incubation has progressed to a certain degree. Also
irritability, nervousness, and depression are apt to be present. Has the
dog exhibited any tendency toward sluggishness, Miss Stevenson?"
"Well, he's been lying around most of the time to-day," Helen May
confessed, staring at Pat apprehensively. "Of course, there hasn't been
anything much for him to do. But he certainly does act queer, just since
Holman Sommers spoke with the prim decision of a teacher instructing a
class, but that seemed to be only his way, and Helen May was growing used
to it. "His evidencing a tendency toward sluggishness to-day, and his
subsequent irritability, may or may not be significant of an abnormality.
If, however, the dog progresses to the stage of hyperaesthesia, and the
muscles of deglutition become extremely rigid, so that he cannot swallow,
convulsions will certainly follow. There will also appear in the mouth
and throat a secretion of thick, viscid mucus, with thickened saliva,
which will be an undubitable proof of rabies."
Having thus innocently damned poor Pat with the suspicion of a dreadful
malady, Sommers made a scientific attempt to soothe Helen May's fears.
He advised, with many words and much kind intent, that Pat be muzzled
until the "hyperaesthesia" did or did not develop. Helen May thought that
the terribly-termed symptoms might develop before they could get a muzzle
from town, but she did not like to say so.
Partly to be hospitable, and partly to get away from Pat, she mounted the
pinto, told Pat to watch the goats, and rode down to the house to see
Martha Sommers. She did not anticipate any pleasure in the visit, much as
she had longed for the sound of a woman's voice. She was really worried
half to death over Starr, and the rabies, and Pat, and the nagging
consciousness that she had not accomplished as much copying of manuscript
as Holman Sommers probably expected.
She did not hear half of what Sommers was saying on the way to the cabin.
His very amiability jarred upon her nervous depression. She had always
liked him, and respected his vast learning, but to-day she certainly did
not get much comfort out of his converse. She wondered why she had been
so light-hearted while Starr was with her showing her how to shoot, and
lecturing her about the danger of going gunless abroad; and why she was
so perfectly dejected when Holman Sommers talked to her about the very
same thing. Starr had certainly painted things blacker than Holman had
done, but it did not seem to have the same effect.
"I don't see what we're going to do for a muzzle," she launched suddenly
into the middle of Holman Sommers' scientific explanation of mirages.
"Vic can undoubtedly construct one out of an old strap," Holman Sommers
retorted impatiently, and went on discoursing about refraction and
reflection and the like.
Helen May tried to follow him, and gave it up. When they were
almost to the spring she again unwittingly jarred Holman Sommers
out of his subject.
"Did all those words you used mean that Pat will foam at the mouth like
mad dogs you read about?" she asked abruptly.
Holman Sommers, tramping along beside the pinto, looked at her queerly.
"If Pat does not, I strongly suspect that I shall," he told her
weightily, but with a twinkle in his eyes. "I have been endeavoring, Miss
Stevenson, to wean your thoughts away from so unhappy a subject. Why
permit yourself to be worried? The thing will happen, or it will not
happen. If it does happen, you will be powerless to prevent. If it does
not, you will have been anxious over a chimera of the imagination."
"Chimera of the imagination is a good line," laughed Helen May
flippantly. "All the same, if Pat is going to gallop all over the
scenery, foaming at the mouth and throwing fits at the sight of water--"
"As a matter of fact," Holman Sommers was beginning again in his most
instructive tone, when a whoop from the spring interrupted him.
Vic had hobbled obligingly down there to get cool water for the plump
lady who was Holman Sommers' sister, and he had nearly stepped on a
sleepy rattler stretched out in the sun. Vic was making a collection of
rattles. He had one set, so far, of five rattles and a "button." He
wanted to get these which were buzzing stridently enough for three
snakes, it seemed to Vic. He was hopping around on his good foot and
throwing rocks; and the snake, having retreated to a small heap of loose
cobblestones, was thrusting his head out in vicious little striking
gestures, and keeping the scaly length of him bidden.
"Wait a minute, I'll get him, Vic," called Helen May, suddenly anxious to
show off her newly acquired skill with firearms. Starr had told her that
lots of people killed rattlesnakes by shooting their heads off. She
wanted to try it, anyway, and show Vic a thing or two. So she rode up as
close as she dared, though the pinto shied away from the ominous sound;
pulled her pearl-handled six-shooter from its holster, aimed, and fired
at the snake's head.
You have heard, no doubt, of "fool's luck." Helen May actually tore the
whole top off that rattlesnake's head (though I may as well say right
here that she never succeeded in shooting another snake) and rode
nonchalantly on to the cabin as though she had done nothing at all
unusual, but smiling to herself at Vic's slack-jawed amazement at seeing
her on horseback, with a gun and such uncanny skill in the use of it.
She felt better after that, and she rather enjoyed the plump sister of
Holman Sommers. The plump sister called him Holly, and seemed to be
inordinately proud of his learning and inordinately fond of nagging at
him over little things. She was what Helen May called a vegetable type of
woman. She did not seem to have any great emotions in her make-up. She
sat in the one rocking-chair under the mesquite tree and crocheted lace
and talked comfortably about Holly and her chickens in the same breath,
and frankly admired Helen May's "spunk" in living out alone like that.
"Don't overlook Vic, though," Helen May put in generously. "I honestly
don't believe I could stand it without Vic."
The plump sister seemed unimpressed. "In this country," she said with a
certain snug positiveness that was the keynote of her personality, "it's
the women that have the courage. They wouldn't be here if they didn't
have. Think how close we are to the Mexican border, for instance.
Anything that is horrible to woman can come out of Mexico. Not that I
look down on them over there," she added, with a complacent tolerance in
her tone. "They are victims of the System that has kept them degraded and
ignorant. But until they are lifted up and educated and raised to our
standards they are bad.
"You can't get around it, Holly, those ignorant Mexicans are _bad_!" She
had lifted her eyes accusingly to where Holman Sommers sat on the ground
with his knees drawn up and his old Panama hat hung upon them. He was
smoking a pipe, and he did not remove it from his mouth; but Helen May
saw that amused quirk of the lips just the same.
"You can't get around it. You know it as well as I do," she reiterated.
"Cannibals are worth saving, but before they are saved they are liable to
eat the missionary. And it's the same thing with your Mexicans. You want
to educate them and raise them to your standards, and that's all right as
far as it goes. But in the meantime they're bad. And if Miss Stevenson
wasn't such a good shot, I wouldn't be able to sleep nights, thinking of
her living up here alone, with just a boy for protection."
"Why, I never heard of such a thing as any danger from Mexicans!" Helen
May looked inquiringly from plump sister to cynical brother.
"Well, you needn't wonder at Holly not telling you," said the plump
sister,--her name was Maggie. "Holly's a fool about some things. Holly
is trying the Uplift, and he shuts his eyes to things that don't fit in
with his theories. If you've copied much of that stuff he's been
writing, you ought to know how impractical he is. Holly's got his head
in the clouds, and he won't look at what's right under his feet." Again
she looked reproof at Holly, and again Holly's lips quirked around the
stem end of his pipe.
"You just keep your eyes open, Miss Stevenson," she admonished, in a
purring, comfortable voice. "I ain't afraid, myself, because I've got
Holly and my cousin Todd, when he's at home. And besides, Holly's always
doing missionary stunts, and the Mexicans like him because he'll let them
rob him right and left and come back and take what they forgot the first
time, and Holly won't do a thing to them. But you don't want to take any
chances, away off here like you are. You lock your door good at night,
and you sleep with a gun under your pillow. And don't go off anywhere
alone. My, even with a gun you ain't any too safe!"
Helen May gave a gasp. But Holman Sommers laughed outright--an easy,
chuckling laugh that partly reassured her. "Danger is Maggie's favorite
joke," he said tolerantly. "As a matter of fact, and speaking from a
close, personal knowledge of the people hereabouts, I can assure you,
Miss Stevenson, that you are in no danger whatever from the source my
"Well, but Holly, I've said it, and I'll say it again; you can't tell
_what_ may come up out of Mexico." Plump Maggie rolled up her lace and
jabbed the ball decisively with the crochet hook, "We'll have to go now,
or the chickens will be wondering where their supper is coming from. You
do what I say, and lock your doors at night, and have your gun handy,
Miss Stevenson. Things may look calm enough on the surface, but they
ain't, I can tell you that!"
"Woman, cease!" cried Holly banteringly, while he dusted his baggy
trousers with his palms. "Miss Stevenson will be haunted by nightmares if
you keep on."
Once they were gone, Helen May surrendered weakly to one fear, to the
extent that she let Vic take the carbine and the pinto and ride over to
where she had left Pat and the goats, for the simple reason that she
dreaded to face alone that much maligned dog. Vic, to be sure, would have
quarreled with her if necessary, to get a ride on the pinto, and he was a
good deal astonished at Helen May's sweet consideration of a boy's
hunger for a horse. But she tempered his joy a bit by urging him to keep
an eye on Pat, who had been acting very queer.
"He kept ruining up his back and showing his teeth at Mr. Sommers," she
explained nervously. "If he does it when you go, Vic, and if he foams at
the mouth, you'd better shoot him before he bites something. If a mad dog
bites you, you'll get hydrophobia, and bark and growl like a dog, and
have fits and die."
"G-oo-d _night_!" Vic ejaculated fervently, and went loping awkwardly
down the trail past the spring.
That left Helen May alone and free to think about the horrors that might
come up out of Mexico, and about the ignorant Mexicans who, until they
are uplifted, are bad. It seemed strange that, if this were true, Starr
had never mentioned the danger. And yet--
"I'll bet anything that's just what Starr-of-the-Desert did mean!" she
exclaimed aloud, her eyes fixed intently on the toes of her scuffed
boots. "He just didn't want to scare me too much and make me suspicious
of everybody that came along, and so he talked mad coyotes at me. But it
was Mexicans he meant; I'll bet anything it was!"
If that was what Starr meant, then the shot from the pinnacle, and
Starr's crafty, Indian-like method of getting away unseen, took on a
new and sinister meaning. Helen May shivered at the thought of Starr
riding away in search of the man who had tried to kill him, and of the
risk he must be taking. And what if the fellow came back, sneaking back
in the dark, and tried to get in the house, or something? It surely was
lucky that Starr-of-the-Desert had just happened to bring those guns.
But had he just _happened_ to bring them? Helen May was not stupid, even
if she were ignorant of certain things she ought to know, living out
alone in the wild. She began to see very clearly just what Starr had
meant; just how far he had _happened_ to have extra guns in his shack,
and had just _happened_ to get hold of a horse that she and Vic could
use; and the dog, too, that hated Mexicans!
"That's why he hates to have me stay on the claim!" she deduced at last.
"Only he just wouldn't tell me right out that it isn't safe. That's what
he meant by asking if dad knew the chances I'd have to take. Well, dad
didn't know, but after the price dad paid, why--I've got to stay, and
make good. There's no sense in being a coward about it. Starr wouldn't
want me to be a coward. He's just scheming around to make it as safe as
he can, without making me cowardly."
A slow, half-tender smile lit her chestnut-tinted eyes, and tilted her
lips at the corners. "Oh, you desert man o' mine, I see through you
now!" she said under her breath, and kept on smiling afterwards, since
there was not a soul near to guess her thoughts. "Desert man o' mine"
was going pretty strong, if you stop to think of it; but Helen May would
have died--would have lied--would have gone to any lengths to keep Starr
from guessing she had ever thought such a thing about him. That was the
woman of her.
The woman of her it was too that kept her dwelling pleasedly on Starr's
shy, protective regard for her, instead of watching the peaks in fear and
trembling lest another bad, un-uplifted Mexican should be watching a
chance to send another bullet zipping down into the Basin on its mission
of wanton wickedness.
STARR SEES TOO LITTLE OR TOO MUCH
Carefully skirting the ridge where Helen May had her goats; keeping
always in the gulches and never once showing himself on high ground,
Starr came after a while to a point where he could look up to the
pinnacle behind Sunlight Basin, from the side opposite the point where
he had wriggled away behind a bush. He left Rabbit hidden in a
brush-choked arroyo that meandered away to the southwest, and began
cautiously to climb.
Starr did not expect to come upon his man on the peak; indeed he would
have been surprised to find the fellow still there. But that peak was as
good as any for reconnoitering the surrounding country, was higher than
any other within several miles, in fact. What he did hope was to pick up
with his glasses the man's line of retreat after a deed he must believe
successfully accomplished. And there might be some betraying sign there
that would give him a clue.
There was always the possibility, however, that the fellow had lingered
to see what took place after the supposed killing. He must believe that
the girl who had been with Starr would take some action, and he might
want to know to a certainty what that action was. So Starr went
carefully, keeping behind boulders and rugged outcroppings and in the
bottom of deep, water-worn washes when nothing else served. He did not
think the fellow, even if he stayed on the peak, would be watching behind
him, but Starr did not take any chances, and climbed rather slowly.
He reached the summit at the left of where the man had stood when he
shot; very close to the spot where Helen May had stood and looked upon
Vic and the goats and the country she abhorred. Starr saw her tracks
there in a sheltered place beside a rock and knew that she had been up
there, though in that dry soil he could not, of course, tell when. When
that baked soil takes an imprint, it is apt to hold it for a long while
unless rain or a real sand-storm blots it out.
He hid there for a few minutes, craning as much as he dared to see if
there were any sign of the man he wanted. In a little he left that spot
and crept, foot by foot, over to the cairn, the "sheepherder's monument,"
behind which the fellow had stood. There again he found the prints of
Helen May's small, mountain boots, prints which he had come to know very
well. And close to them, looking as though the two had stood together,
were the larger, deeper tracks of a man.
Starr dared not rise and stand upright. He must keep always under cover
from any chance spying from below. He could not, therefore, trace the
footprints down the peak. But he got some idea of the man's direction
when he left, and he knew, of course, where to find Helen May. He did not
connect the two in his mind, beyond registering clearly in his memory the
two sets of tracks.
He crept closer to the Basin side of the peak and looked down, following
an impulse he did not try to analyze. Certainly he did not expect to see
any one, unless it were Vic, so he had a little shock of surprise when he
saw Helen May riding the pinto up past the spring, with a man walking
beside her and glancing up frequently into her face. Starr was human; I
have reminded you several times how perfectly human he was. He
immediately disliked that man. When he heard faintly the tones of Helen
May's laugh, he disliked the man more.
He got down, with his head and his arms--the left one was lame in
the biceps--above a rock. He made sure that the sun had swung around
so it would not shine on the lenses and betray him by any
heliographic reflection, and focussed his glasses upon the two. He
saw as well as heard Helen May laugh, and he scowled over it. But
mostly he studied the man.
"All right for you, old boy," he muttered. "I don't know who the devil
you are, but I don't like your looks." Which shows how human jealousy
will prejudice a man.
He saw Vic throwing rocks at something which he judged was a snake, and
he saw Helen May rein the pinto awkwardly around, "square herself for
action," as Starr would have styled it, and fire. By her elation;
artfully suppressed, by the very carelessness with which she shoved the
gun in its holster, he knew that she had hit whatever she shot at. He
caught the tones of Holman Sommers' voice praising her, and he hated the
tones. He watched them come on up to the little house, where they
disappeared at the end where the mesquite tree grew. Sitting in the shade
there, talking, he guessed they were doing, and for some reason he
resented it. He saw Vic lift a rattlesnake up by its tail, and heard him
yell that it had six rattles, and the button was missing.
After that Starr turned his hack on the Basin and began to search
scowlingly the plain. He tried to pull his mind away from Helen May and
her visitor and to fix it upon the would-be assassin. He believed that
the horseman he had seen earlier in the day might be the one, and he
looked for him painstakingly, picking out all the draws, all the dry
washes and arroyos of that vicinity. The man would keep under cover, of
course, in making his getaway. He would not ride across a ridge if he
could help it, any more than would Starr.
Even so, from that height Starr could look down into many of the deep
places. In one of them he caught sight of a horseman picking his way
carefully along the boulder-strewn bottom. The man's back was toward him,
but the general look of him was Mexican. The horse was bay with a rusty
black tail, but there were in New Mexico thousands of bay horses with
black tails, so there was nothing gained there. The rider seemed to be
making toward Medina's ranch, though that was only a guess, since the
arroyo he was following led in that direction at that particular place.
Later it took a sharp turn to the south, and the rider went out of sight
before Starr got so much as a glimpse at his features.
He watched for a few minutes longer, sweeping his glasses slowly to
right and left. He took another look down into the Basin and saw no one
stirring, that being about the time when the plump sister was rolling
up her fancy work and tapering off her conversation to the point of
making her adieu. Starr did not watch long enough for his own peace of
mind. Five more minutes would have brought the plump one into plain
view with her brother and Helen May, and would have identified Holman
Sommers as the escort of a lady caller. But those five minutes Starr
spent in crawling back down the peak on the side farthest from the
Basin, leaving Holman Sommers sticking in his mind with the unpleasant
flavor of mystery.
He mounted Rabbit again and made a detour of several miles so that he
might come up on the ridge behind Medina's without running any risk of
crossing the trail of the men he wanted to watch. About two o'clock he
stopped at a shallow, brackish stream and let Rabbit rest and feed for an
hour while Starr himself climbed another rocky pinnacle and scanned the
country between there and Medina's.
The gate that let one off the main road and into the winding trail which
led to the house stood out in plain view at the mouth of a shallow draw.
This was not the trail which led out from the home ranch toward San
Bonito, where Starr had been going when he saw the track of the
mysterious automobile, but the trail one would take in going from
Medina's to Malpais. The ranch house itself stood back where the draw
narrowed, but the yellow-brown trail ribboned back from the gate in
Here again Starr was fated to get a glimpse and no more. He focussed his
glasses on the main road first; picked up the Medina branch to the gate,
followed the trail on up the draw, and again he picked up a man riding a
bay horse. And just as he was adjusting his lenses for a sharper clarity
of vision, the horse trotted around a bend and disappeared from sight.
Starr swore, but that did not bring the man back down the trail. Starr
was not at all sure that this was the same man he had seen in the draw,
and he was not sure that either was the man who had shot at him. But
roosting on that heat-blistered pinnacle swearing about the things he
didn't know struck him as a profitless performance, so he climbed down,
got into the saddle again, and rode on.
He reached the granite ridge back of Medina's about four o'clock in the
afternoon. He was tired, for he had been going since daylight, and for a
part of the time at least he had been going on foot, climbing the steep,
rocky sides of peaks for the sake of what he might see from the top, and
then climbing down again for sake of what some one else might see if he
stayed too long. His high-heeled riding boots that Helen May so greatly
admired were very good-looking and very comfortable when he had them
stuck into stirrups to the heel. But they had never been built for
walking. Therefore his feet ached abominably. And there was the heat, the
searing, dry heat of midsummer in the desert country. He was dog tired,
and he was depressed because he had not seemed able to accomplish
anything with all his riding and all his scanning of the country.
He climbed slowly the last, brown granite ridge, the ridge behind Estan
Medina's house. He would watch the place and see what was going on there.
Then, he supposed he should go back and watch _Las Nuevas_, though his
chief seemed to think that he had discovered enough there for their
purposes. He had sent on the pamphlets, and he knew that when the time
was right, _Las Nuevas_ would be muzzled with a postal law and, he
hazarded, a seizure of their mail.
What he had to do now was to find the men who were working in conjunction
with _Las Nuevas_; who were taking the active part in organizing and in
controlling the Mexican Alliance. So far he had not hit upon the real
leaders, and he knew it, and in his weariness was oppressed with a sense
of failure. They might better have left him in Texas, he told himself
glumly. They sure had drawn a blank when they drew him into the Secret
Service, because he had accomplished about as much as a pup trying to run
down a coyote.
A lizard scuttled out of his way, when he crawled between two boulders
that would shield him from sight unless a man walked right up on him
where he lay--and Starr did not fear that, because there were too many
loose cobbles to roll and rattle; he knew, because he had been twice as
long as he liked in getting to this point quietly. He took off his hat,
telling himself morosely that you couldn't tell his head from a lump of
granite anyway, when he had his hat off, and lifted his glasses to his
The Medina ranch was just showing signs of awakening after a siesta.
Estan himself was pottering about the corral, and Luis, a boy about
eighteen years old, was fooling with a colt in a small enclosure that had
evidently been intended for a garden and had been permitted to grow up in
weeds and grass instead.
After a while a peona came out and fed the chickens, and hunted through
the sheds for eggs, which she carried in her apron. She stopped to watch
Luis and the colt, and Luis coaxed her to give him an egg, which he was
feeding to the colt when his mother saw and called to him shrilly from
the house. The peona ducked guiltily and ran, stooping, beside a stone
wall that hid her from sight until she had slipped into the kitchen. The
senora searched for her, scolding volubly in high-keyed Mexican, so that
Estan came lounging up to see what was the matter.
Afterwards they all went to the house, and Starr knew that there would be
real, Mexican tortillas crisp and hot from the baking, and chili con
carne and beans, and perhaps another savory dish or two which the senora
herself had prepared for her sons.
Starr was hungry. He imagined that he could smell those tortillas from
where he lay. He could have gone down, and the Medinas would have greeted
him with lavish welcome and would have urged him to eat his fill. They
would not question him, he knew. If they suspected his mission, they
would cover their suspicion with much amiable talk, and their
protestations of welcome would be the greater because of their
insincerity. But he did not go down. He made himself more comfortable
between the boulders and settled himself to wait and see what the night
First it brought the gorgeous sunset, that made him think of Helen May
just because it was beautiful and because she would probably be gazing up
at the crimson and gold and all the other elusive, swift-changing shades
that go to make a barbaric sunset. Sure, she would be looking at it,
unless she was still talking to that man, he thought jealously. It
fretted him that he did not know who the fellow was. So he turned his
thoughts away from the two of them.
Next came the dusk, and after that the stars. There was no moon to taunt
him with memories, or more practically, to light for him the near
country. With the stars came voices from the porch of the adobe house
below him. Estan's voice he made out easily, calling out to Luis inside,
to ask if he had shut the colt in the corral. The senora's high voice
spoke swiftly, admonishing Luis. And presently Luis could be seen dimly
as he moved down toward the corrals.
Starr hated this spying upon a home, but he held himself doggedly to the
task. Too many homes were involved, too many sons were in danger, too
many mothers would mourn if he did not play the spy to some purpose now.
This very home he was watching would be the happier when he and his
fellows had completed their work and the snake of intrigue was beheaded
just as Helen May had beheaded the rattler that afternoon. This home was
happy now, under the very conditions that were being deplored so
bombastically in the circulars he had read. Why, then, should its peace
be despoiled because of political agitators?
Luis put the colt up for the night and returned, whistling, to the house.
The tune he whistled was one he had learned at some movie show, and in a
minute he broke into singing, "Hearts seem light, and life seems bright
in dreamy Chinatown." Starr, brooding up there above the boy, wished that
Luis might never be heavier of heart than now, when he went singing up
the path to the thick-walled adobe. He liked Luis.
The murmur of voices continued, and after awhile there came plaintively
up to Starr the sound of a guitar, and mingling with it the voice of Luis
singing a Spanish song. _La Golondrina_, it was, that melancholy song of
exile which Mexicans so love. Starr listened gloomily, following the
words easily enough in that still night air.
Away to the northwest there gleamed a brighter, more intimate star than
the constellation above. While Luis sang, the watcher in the rocks fixed
his eyes wistfully on that gleaming pin point of light, and wondered what
Helen May was doing. Her lighted window it was; her window that looked
down through the mouth of the Basin and out over the broken mesa land
that was half desert. Until then he had not known that her window saw so
far; though it was not strange that he could see her light, since he was
on the crest of a ridge higher than any other until one reached the bluff
that held Sunlight Basin like a pocket within its folds.
Luis finished the song, strummed a while, sang a popular rag-time,
strummed again and, so Starr explained his silence, went to bed. Estan
began again to talk, now and then lifting his voice, speaking earnestly,
as though he was arguing or protesting, or perhaps expounding a theory of
some sort. Starr could not catch the words, though he knew in a general
way the meaning of the tones Estan was using.
A new sound brought him to his knees, listening: the sound of a
high-powered engine being thrown into low gear and buzzing like angry
hornets because the wheels did not at once grip and thrust the car
forward. Sand would do that. While Starr listened, he heard the chuckle
of the car getting under way, and a subdued purring so faint that, had
there not been a slow, quiet breeze from that direction, the sound would
never have reached his ears at all. Even so, he had no more than
identified it when the silence flowed in and covered it as a lazy tide
covers a pebble in the moist sand.
Starr glanced down at the house, heard Estan still talking, and got
carefully to his feet. He thought he knew where the car had slipped in
the sand, and he made toward the place as quickly as he could go in the
dark and still keep his movements quiet. It was back in that arroyo where
he had first discovered traces of the car he now felt sure had come from
the yard of _Las Nuevas_.
He remembered that on the side next him the arroyo had deep-cut banks
that might get him a nasty fall if he attempted them in the dark, so he
took a little more time for the trip and kept to the rougher, yet safer,
granite-covered ridge. Once, just once, he caught the glow of dimmed
headlights falling on the slope farthest from him. He hurried faster,
after that, and so he climbed down into the arroyo at last, near the
point where he had climbed out of it that other day.
He went, as straight as he could go in the dark, to the place where he
had first seen the tracks of the Silvertown cords. He listened, straining
his ears to catch the smallest sound. A cricket fiddled stridently, but
there was nothing else.
Starr took a chance and searched the ground with a pocket flashlight. He
did not find any fresh tracks, however. And while he was standing in the
dark considering how the hills might have carried the sound deceptively
to his ear, and how he may have been mistaken, from somewhere on the
other side of the ridge came the abrupt report of a gun. The sound was
muffled by the distance, yet it was unmistakable. Starr listened, heard
no second shot, and ran back up the rocky gulch that led to the ridge he
had just left, behind Medina's house.
He was puffing when he reached the place where he had lain between the
two boulders, and he stopped there to listen again. It came,--the sound
he instinctively expected, yet dreaded to hear; the sound of a woman's
"IS HE THEN DEAD--MY SON?"
Starr hurried down the bluff, slipping, sliding, running where the way
was clear of rocks. So presently he came to the stone wall, vaulted over
it, and stopped beside the tragic little group dimly outlined in the
house yard just off the porch.
"My son--my son!" the old woman was wailing, on her knees beside a long,
inert figure lying on its back on the hard-packed earth. Back of her the
peona hovered, hysterical, useless. Luis, half dressed and a good deal
dazed yet from sleep and the suddenness of his waking, knelt beside his
mother, patting her shoulder in futile affection, staring down
bewilderedly at Estan.
So Starr found them. Scenes like this were not so unusual in his life,
which had been lived largely among unruly passions. He spoke quietly to
Luis and knelt to see if the man lived. The senora took comfort from his
calm presence and with dumb misery watched his deft movements while he
felt for heartbeats and for the wound.
"But is he then dead, my son?" she wailed in Spanish, when Starr gently
laid down upon Estan's breast the hand he had been holding. "But so
little while ago he lived and to me he talked. Ah, my son!"
Starr looked at her quietingly. "How, then, did it happen? Tell me,
senora, that I may assist," he said, speaking easily the Spanish which
"Ah, the good friend that thou art! Ah, my son that I loved! How can I
tell what is mystery? Who would harm my son--my little Estan that was so
good? Yet a voice called softly from the dark--and me, I heard, though to
my bed I had but gone. 'Estan!' called the voice, so low. And my son--ah,
my son!--to the door he went swiftly, the _lampara_ in his hand, holding
it high--so--that the light may shine into the dark.
"'Who calls?' Me, I heard my son ask--ah, never again will I hear his
voice! Out of the door he went--to see the man who called. To the
porch-end he came--I heard his steps. Ah, my son! Never again thy dear
footsteps will I hear!" And she fell to weeping over him.
"And then? Tell me, senora. What happened next?"
"Ah--the shot that took from me my son! Then feet running away--then I
came out--Ah, _querido mio_, that thou shouldst be torn from thy
"And you don't know--?"
"No, no--no--ah, that my heart should break with sorrow--"
"Hush, mother! 'Twas Apodaca! He is powerful--and Estan would not come
into the Alliance. I told him it would be--" Luis, kneeling there,
beating his hands together in the dark, spoke with the heedless
passion of youth.
"Which Apodaca? Juan?" Starr's voice was low, with the sympathetic tone
that pulls open the floodgates of speech when one is stricken hard.
"Not Juan; Juan is a fool. Elfigo Apodaca it was--or some one obeying his
order. Estan they feared--Estan would not come in, and the time was
coming so close--and Estan held out and talked against it. I told him his
life would pay for his holding out. I _told_ him! And now I shall kill
Apodaca--and my life also will pay--"
"What is this thou sayest?" The mother, roused from her lamentations by
the boy's vehemence, plucked at his sleeve. "But thou must not kill, my
little son. Thou art--"
"Why not? They'll all be killing in a month!" flashed Luis unguardedly.
Starr, kneeling on one knee, looked at the boy across Estan's chilling
body. A guarded glance it was, but a searching glance that questioned and
weighed and sat in judgment upon the truth of the startling assertion.
Yet younger boys than Luis are commanding troops in Mexico, for the
warlike spirit develops early in a land where war is the chief business
of the populace. It was not strange then that eighteen-year-old Luis
should be actively interested in the building of a revolution on this
side the border. It was less strange because of his youth; for Luis would
have all the fiery attributes of the warrior, unhindered by the cool
judgment of maturity. He would see the excitement, the glory of it. Estan
would see the terrible cost of it, in lives and in patrimony. Luis loved
action. Estan loved his big flocks and his acres upon acres of land, and
his quiet home; had loved too his foster country, if he had spoken his
true sentiments. So Starr took his cue and thanked his good fortune that
he had come upon this tragedy while it was fresh, and while the shock of
it was loosening the tongue of Luis.
"A month from now is another time, Luis," he said quietly. "This is
murder, and the man who did it can be punished."
"You can't puneesh Apodaca," Luis retorted, speaking English, since Starr
had used the language, which put their talk beyond the mother's
understanding. "He is too--too high up--But I can kill," he added
"The law can get him better than you can," Starr pointed out cannily.
"Can you think of anybody else that might be in on the deal?"
"N-o--" Luis was plainly getting a hold on himself, and would not tell
all he knew. "I don't know notheeng about it."
"Well, what you'd better do now is saddle a horse and ride in to town and
tell the coroner--and the sheriff. If you don't," he added, when he
caught a stiffening of opposition in the attitude of Luis, "if you don't,
you will find yourself in all kinds of trouble. It will look bad. You
have to notify the coroner, anyway, you know. That's the law. And the
coroner will see right away that Estan was shot. So the sheriff will be
bound to get on the job, and it will be a heap better for you, Luis, if
you tell him yourself. And if you try to kill Apodaca, that will rob your
mother of both her sons. You must think of her. Estan would never bring
trouble to her that way. You stand in his place now. So you ride in and
tell the sheriff and tell the coroner. Say that you suspect Elfigo
Apodaca. The sheriff will do the rest."
"What does the senor advise, my son?" murmured the mother, plucking at
the sleeve of Luis. "The good friend he was to my poor Estan--my son! Do
thou what he tells thee, for he is wise and good, and he would not guide
Luis hesitated, staring down at the dead body of Estan. "I will go," he
said, breaking in upon the sound of the peona's reasonless weeping. "I
will do that. The sheriff is not Mexican, or--" He checked himself
abruptly and peered across at Starr. "I go," he repeated hastily.
He stood up, and Starr rose also and assisted the old lady to her feet.
She seemed inclined to cling to him. Her Estan had liked Starr, and for
that her faith in him never faltered now. He laid his arm protectively
around her shaking shoulders.
"Senora, go you in and rest," he commanded gently, in Spanish. "Have the
girl bring a blanket to cover Estan--for here he must remain until he is
viewed by the coroner--you understand? Your son would be grieved if you
do not rest. You still have Luis, your little son. You must be brave and
help Luis to be a man. Then will Estan be proud of you both." So he
suited his speech to the gentle ways of the old senora, and led her back
to the shelter of the porch as tenderly as Estan could have done.
He sent the peona for a lamp to replace the one that had broken when
Estan fell with it in his hand. He settled the senora upon the
cowhide-covered couch where her frail body could be comfortable and she
still could feel that she was watching beside her son. He placed a pillow
under her head, and spread a gay-striped serape over her, and tucked it
carefully around her slippered feet. The senora wept more quietly, and
called him the son of her heart, and brokenly thanked God for the
tenderness of all good men.
He explained to her briefly that he had been riding to town by a
short-cut over the ridge when he heard the shot and hurried down; and
that, having left his horse up there, he must go up after it and bring it
around to the corral. He would not be gone longer than was absolutely
necessary, he told her, and he promised to come back and stay with her
while the officers were there. Then he hurried away, the senora's broken
thanks lingering painfully in his memory.
At the top of the bluff, where he had climbed as fast as he could, he
stood for a minute to get his breath back. He heard the muffled
pluckety-pluck of a horse galloping down the sandy trail, and he knew
that there went Luis on his bitter mission to San Bonito. His eyes turned
involuntarily toward Sunlight Basin. There twinkled still the light from
Helen May's window, though it was well past midnight. Starr wondered at
that, and hoped she was not sick. Then immediately his face grew
lowering. For between him and the clear, twinkling light of her window he
saw a faint glow that moved swiftly across the darkness; an automobile
running that way with dimmed headlights.
"Now what in thunder does that mean?" he asked himself uneasily. He had
not in the least expected that move. He had believed that the automobile
he had heard, which very likely had carried the murderer, would hurry
straight to town, or at least in that direction. But those dimmed lights,
and in that the machine surely betrayed a furtiveness in its flight,
seemed to be heading for Sunlight Basin, though it might merely be making
the big loop on its way to Malpais or beyond. He stared again at the
twinkling light of Helen May's lamp. What in the world was she doing up
at that hour of the night? "Oh, well, maybe she sleeps with a light
burning." He dismissed the unusual incident, and went on about his more
Rabbit greeted him with a subdued nicker of relief, telling plainly as a
horse can speak that he had been seriously considering foraging for his
supper and not waiting any longer for Starr. There he had stood for six
or seven hours, just where Starr had dismounted and dropped the reins. He
was a patient little horse, and he knew his business, but there is a
limit to patience, and Rabbit had almost reached it.
Starr led him up over the rocky ridge into the arroyo where the
automobile had been, and from there he rode down to the trail and back to
the Medina ranch. He watered Rabbit at the ditch, pulled off the saddle,
and turned him into the corral, throwing him an armful of secate from a
half-used stack. Then he went up to the house and sat on the edge of the
porch beside the senora, who was still weeping and murmuring yearning
endearments to the ears that could not hear.
He did not know how long he would have to wait, but he knew that Luis
would not spare his horse. He smoked, and studied the things which Luis
had let drop; every word of immense value to him now. Elfigo Apodaca he
knew slightly, and he wondered a little that he would be the Alliance
leader in this section of the State.
Elfigo Apodaca seemed so thoroughly Americanized that only his swarthy
skin and black hair and eyes reminded one that he was after all a son of
the south. He did a desultory business in real estate, and owned an
immense tract of land, the remnant of an old Spanish grant, and went in
for fancy cattle and horses. He seemed more a sportsman than a
politician--a broadminded, easy-going man of much money. Starr had still
a surprised sensation that the trail should lead to Elfigo. Juan, the
brother of Elfigo, he could find it much easier to see in the role of
conspirator. But horror does not stop to weigh words, and Starr knew that
Luis had spoken the truth in that unguarded moment.
He pondered that other bit of information that had slipped out: "In a
month they'll all be killing." That was a point which he and his
colleagues had not been able to settle in their own minds, the proposed
date of the uprising. In a month! The time was indeed short, but now that
they had something definite to work on, a good deal might be done in a
month; so on the whole Starr felt surprisingly cheerful. And if Elfigo
found himself involved in a murder trial, it would help to hamper his
activities with the Alliance. Starr regretted the death of Estan, but he
kept thinking of the good that would come of it. He kept telling himself
that the shooting of Estan Medina would surely put a crimp in the
revolution. Also it would mark Luis for a mate to the bullet that reached
Estan, if that hotheaded youth did not hold his tongue.
He was considering the feasibility of sending Luis and his mother out of
the country for awhile, when the sheriff and coroner and Luis came
rocking down the narrow trail in a roadster built for speed where speed
was no pleasure but a necessity.
The sheriff was an ex-cattleman, with a desert-baked face and hard eyes
and a disconcerting habit of chewing gum and listening and saying nothing
himself. For the sake of secrecy, Starr had avoided any acquaintance with
him and his brother officers, so the sheriff gave him several sharp
glances while he was viewing the body and the immediate surroundings.
Luis had told him, coming out, the meager details of the murder, and he
had again accused Elfigo Apodaca, though he had done some real thinking
on the way to town, and had cooled to the point where he chose his words
more carefully. The sheriff's name was O'Malley, which is reason enough
why Luis was chary of confiding Mexican secrets to his keeping.
Elfigo Apodaca had quarreled with Estan, said Luis. He had come to the
ranch, and Luis had heard them quarreling over water rights. Elfigo had
threatened to "get" Estan, and to "fix" him, and Luis had been afraid
that Estan would be shot before the quarrel was over. He had heard the
voice that called Estan out of the house that night, and he told the
sheriff that he had recognized Elfigo's voice. Luis surely did all he
could to settle any doubt in the mind of the sheriff, and he felt that he
had been very smart to say they quarreled over water rights; a lawsuit
two years ago over that very water-right business lent convincingness to
The sheriff had not said anything at all after Luis had finished his
story of the shooting. He had chewed gum with the slow, deliberate jaw of
a cow meditating over her cud, and he had juggled the wheel of his
machine and shifted his gears on hills and in sandy stretches with the
same matter-of-fact deliberation. Sheriff O'Malley might be called one of
the old school of rail-roosting, stick-whittling thinkers. He took his
time, and he did not commit himself too impulsively to any cause. But he
could act with surprising suddenness, and that made him always an
uncertain factor, so that lawbreakers feared him as they feared
The sheriff, then, stood around with his hands in his pockets and his
feet planted squarely under him, squeezing a generous quid of gum
between his teeth and very slightly teetering on heels and toes, while
the coroner made a cursory examination and observed, since it was coming
gray daylight, how the lamp lay shattered just where it had fallen with
Estan. He asked, in bad Spanish, a few questions of the grief-worn
senora, who answered him dully as she had answered Starr. She had heard
the call, yes.
"You know Elfigo Apodaca?" the sheriff asked suddenly, and watched how
the eyes of the senora went questioningly, uneasily, to Luis; watched how
she hesitated before she admitted that she knew him.
"You know his voice?"
But the senora closed her thin lips and shook her head, and in a minute
she laid her head back on the pillow and closed her eyes also, and would
talk no more.
The sheriff chewed and teetered meditatively, his eyes on the ground.
From the tail of his eye Starr watched him, secretly willing to bet that
he knew what the sheriff was thinking. When O'Malley turned and strolled
back to the porch, his hands still in his pockets and his eyes still on
the ground as though he were weighing the matter carefully, Starr stood
where he was, apparently unaware that the sheriff had moved. Starr seemed
to be watching the coroner curiously, but he knew just when the sheriff
passed cat-footedly behind him, and he grinned to himself.
The sheriff made one of his sudden moves, and jerked the six-shooter from
its holster at Starr's hip, pulled out the cylinder pin and released the
cylinder with its customary five loaded chambers and an empty one under
the hammer. He tilted the gun, muzzle to him, toward the rising sun and
squinted into its barrel that shone with the care it got, save where
particles of dust had lodged in the bore. He held the gun close under his
red nose and sniffed for the smell of oil that would betray a fresh
cleaning. And Starr watched him interestedly, smiling approval.
"All right, far as you've gone," he said casually, when the sheriff was
replacing the cylinder in the gun. "If you want to go a step farther, I
reckon maybe I can show you where I come down off the bluff when I
heard the shot, and where I went back again after my horse. And you'll
see, maybe, that I couldn't shoot from the bluff and get a man around
on the far side of the house. Won't take but a minute to show yuh." He
gave the slight head tilt and the slight wink of one eye which, the
world over, asks for a secret conference, and started off around the
corner of the house.
The sheriff followed noncommittally but he kept close at Starr's heels as
though he suspected that Starr meant to disappear somehow. So they
reached the bluff, which Starr knew would be out of hearing from the
house so long as they did not speak loudly. He pointed down at the prints
of his boots where he had left the rocks of the steep hillside for the
sand of the level; and he even made a print beside the clearest track to
show the sheriff that he had really come down there as he climbed. But it
was plain that Starr's mind was not on the matter of footprints.
"Keep on looking around here, like you was tracing up my trail," he said
in a low voice, pointing downward. "I've got something I want to tell
yuh, and I want you to listen close and get what I say, because I ain't
apt to repeat it. And I don't want that coroner to get the notion we're
talking anything over. That little play you made with my gun showed that
you've got hoss sense and ain't overlooking any bets, and it may be that
I'll have use for yuh before long. Now listen."
The sheriff listened, chewing industriously and wandering about while
Starr talked. His hard eyes changed a little, and twice he nodded his
head in assent.
"Now you do that," said Starr at last, with an air of one giving orders.
"And see to it that you get a hearing as soon as possible. I can't appear
except as a witness, of course, but I want a chance to size up the
fellows that take the biggest interest in the trial. And keep it all on
the basis of a straight quarrel, if you can. You'll have to fix that up
with the prosecuting attorney, if you can trust him that far."
"I can, Mr. Starr. He's my brother-in-law, and he's the best man we could
pick in the county for what you want. I get you, all right. There won't
be anything drop about what you just told me."
"There better hadn't be anything drop!" Starr told him dryly. "You're
into something deeper than county work now, ole-timer. This is Federal
business, remember. Come on back and stall around some more, and let me
go on about my own business. You can get word to me at the Palacia if you
want me at the inquest, but don't get friendly. I'm just a stock-buyer
that happened along. Keep it that way."
"I sure will, Mr. Starr. I'll do my part." The sheriff relapsed into his
ruminative manner as he led the way back to the house. One may guess that
Starr had given him something worth ruminating about.
In a few minutes, he told Starr curtly that he could go if he wanted to;
and he bettered that by muttering to the coroner that he had a notion to
hold the fellow, but that he seemed to have a pretty clear alibi, and
they could get him later if they wanted him. To which the coroner agreed
in neighborly fashion.
Starr was saddling Rabbit for another long ride, and he was scowling
thoughtfully while he did it.
A PAGE OF WRITING
Wind came with the sun and went shrieking across the high levels, taking
with it clouds of sand and bouncing tumbleweeds that rolled and lodged
for a minute against some rock or bush and then went whirling on again in
a fresh gust. Starr had not ridden two miles before his face began to
feel the sting of gravel in the sand clouds. His eyes, already aching
with a day's hard usage and a night of no sleep, smarted with the impact
of the wind. He fumbled at the band of his big, Texas hat and pulled down
a pair of motor goggles and put them on distastefully. Like blinders on a
horse they were, but he could not afford to face that wind with
unprotected eyes--not when so very much depended upon his eyes and his
ears and the keenest, coolest faculties of his mind.
Still worry nagged at him. He wanted to know who was the man that had
visited Helen May so soon after he had left, and he wanted to know why a
light had shone from her window at one o'clock last night; and whether
the automobile had been going to Sunlight Basin, or merely in that
He hurried, for he had no patience with worries that concerned Helen May.
Besides, he meant to beg a breakfast from her, and he was afraid that if
he waited too late she might be out with Pat and the goats, and he would
have to waste time on the kid (Vic would have resented that term as
applied to himself) who might be still laid up with his sprained ankle.
He was not thinking so much this morning about the knowledge he had
gained in the night. He had given several quiet hours to thought upon
that subject, and he had his course pretty clearly defined in his mind.
He also had Sheriff O'Malley thoroughly coached and prepared to do his
part. The matter of Elfigo Apodaca, then, he laid aside for the present,
and concerned himself chiefly with what on the surface were trifles, but
which, taken together, formed a chain of disquieting incidents. Rabbit
felt his master's desire for haste, and loped steadily along the trail,
dropping now and then into his smooth fox-trot, that was almost as fast a
gait; so it was still early morning when he dropped reins outside and
rapped on the closed door.
Helen May opened the door cautiously, it seemed to him; a scant six
inches until she saw who he was, when she cried "Oh!" in a surprised,
slightly confused tone, and let him in. Starr noticed two things at the
first glance he gave her. The first was the blue crocheted cap which she
wore; he did not know that it was called a breakfast-cap and that it was
very stylish, for Starr, you must remember, lived apart from any intimate
home life that would familiarize him with such fripperies. The cap
surprised him, but he liked the look of it even though he kept that
liking to himself.
The second thing he noticed was that Helen May was hiding something in
her right hand which was dropped to her side. When she had let him in and
turned away to offer him a chair, he saw that she had the pearl-handled
She disappeared behind a screen, and came out with her right hand empty,
evidently believing he had not seen how she had prepared herself for an
emergency. She had only yesterday told him emphatically how harmless she
considered the country; and he had been careful to warn her only about
rabid coyotes, so that without being alarmed, she would not go unarmed
away from home. It seemed queer to Starr that she should act as though
she expected rabid coyotes to come a-knocking at her door in broad
daylight. Had she, he thought swiftly, been only pretending that she
considered the country perfectly safe?
He could not help it; that six-shooter hidden in the folds of her skirt
stuck in his mind. It was just a trifle, like her lighted window at one
o'clock in the morning; like that strange man who had called on her just
after Starr had left her, and with whom she had seemed to be on such
friendly terms. He had warned her of coyotes. She was not supposed to
know that it was wise to arm herself before she opened her door to a
daylight caller. At night, yes. But at seven o'clock in the morning?
Starr did not suspect Helen May of anything, but he had been trained to
suspect mysterious trifles. In spite of himself, this trifle nagged at
He fancied that Helen May was just a shade flustered in her welcome; just
a shade nervous in her movements, in her laughter, in the very tones of
"You're out early," she said. "Vic isn't up yet; I suppose the goats
ought to be let out, too. You couldn't have had your breakfast--or have
you? One can expect almost anything of a man who just rides out of
nowhere at all hours, and disappears into nowhere."
"I shore wish that was so," Starr retorted banteringly. "I wish I had to
ride nowhere to-day."
"Oh, I meant the mystery of the unknown," she hurried to correct herself.
"You come out of the desert just any old time. And you go off into the
desert just as unexpectedly; by the way, did you--"
"Nope. I did not." She might forget that Vic was in the house, but Starr
never forgot things of that sort, and he wilfully forestalled her
intention to ask about the shooting. "I didn't have any supper, either,
beyond a sandwich or two that was mostly sand after I'd packed 'em around
all day. I just naturally had to turn tramp and come ask for a handout,
when I found out at daylight how close I was to breakfast."
"Why, of course. You know you won't have to beg very hard. I was just
going to put on the coffee. So you make yourself at home, and I'll have
breakfast in a few minutes. Vic, for gracious sake, get up! Here's
company already. And you'll have to let out the goats. Pat can keep them
together awhile, but he can't open the gate, and I'm busy."
Starr heard the prodigious yawn of the awakening Vic, who slept
behind a screen in the kitchen, bedrooms being a superfluous luxury
in which Johnny Calvert had not indulged himself. Starr followed her
to the doorway.
"I'll go let out the goats," he offered. "I want to take off the bridle
anyway, so Rabbit can feed around a little." He let himself out into the
whooping wind, feeling, for some inexplicable reason, depressed when he
had expected to feel only relief.
"Lord! I'm getting to the point where anything that ain't accompanied by
a chart and diagrams looks suspicious to me. She's got more hawse sense
than I gave her credit for, that's all. She musta seen through my yarnin'
about them mad coyotes. She's pretty cute, coming to the door with her
six-gun just like a real one! And never letting on to me that she had it
right handy. I must be getting off my feed or something, the way I take
things wrong. Now her being up late--I'm just going to mention how far
off I saw her light burning--and how late it was. I'll see what she says
But he did nothing of the kind, and for what he considered a very good
reason. The wind was blowing in eddying gusts, of the kind that seizes
and whirls things; such a gust swooped into the room when he opened the
door, seized upon some papers which lay on her writing desk, and sent
them clear across the room.
Starr hastily closed the door and rescued the papers where they had
flattened against the wall; and he wished he had gone blind before he saw
what they were. A glance was all he gave, at first--the involuntary
glance which one gives to a bit of writing picked up in an odd place--but
that was enough to chill his blood with the shock of damning
enlightenment. A page of writing, it was, fine, symmetrical, hard to
decipher--a page of Holly Sommers' manuscript; you know that, of course.
But Starr did not know. He only knew the writing matched the pages of
revolutionary stuff he had found in the office of _Las Nuevas._ There was
no need of comparing the two; the writing was unmistakable. And he
believed that Helen May was the writer. He believed it when he glanced up
and saw her coming in from the kitchen, and saw her eyes go to what he
had in his hand, and saw the start she gave before she hurried to take
the paper away.
"My gracious! My work--" she said agitatedly, when she had the papers in
her hand. She went to her desk, looking perturbed, and gave a quick,
seeking glance at the scattered papers there; then at Starr.
"Did any more--?"
"That's all," Starr said gravely. "It was the wind when I opened the
door, caught them."
"My own carelessness. I don't know why I left my desk open," she said.
And while he stood looking at her, she pulled down the roll-top with a
slam, still visibly perturbed.
It was strange, he thought, that she should have a roll-top desk out
here, anyway. He had seen it the other time he was at the house, and it
had struck him then as queer, though he had not given it more than a
As a matter of fact, it was not queer. Johnny Calvert had dilated on the
destructiveness of rats, "pack rats" he called them. They would chew
paper all to bits, he said. So Helen May, being finicky about having her
papers chewed, had brought along this mouse-proof desk with her other
furniture from Los Angeles.
Her perturbed manner, too, was the result of a finicky distaste for
having any disorder in her papers, especially when it was work intrusted
to her professionally. She never talked about the work she did for
people, and she always kept it away from the eyes of those not concerned
in it. That, she considered, was professional etiquette. She had strained
a point when she had read a little of the manuscript to Vic. Vic was just
a kid, and he was her brother, and he wouldn't understand what she read
any more than would the horned toad down by the spring. But Starr was
different, and she felt that she had been terribly careless and
unprofessional, leaving the manuscript where pages could blow around the
room. What if a page had blown outside and got lost!
Starr had turned his back and was staring out of the window. He might
have been staring at a blank wall, for all he saw through the glass. He
was as pale as though he had just received some great physical shock, and
he had his hands doubled up into fists, so that his knuckles were white.
His eyes were almost gray instead of hazel, and they were hard and
Something in the set of his head and in the way his shoulders had
stiffened told Helen May that things had gone wrong just in the last
few minutes. She gave him a second questioning glance, felt her
heart go heavy while her brain seemed suddenly blank, and retreated
to the kitchen.
Helen May, influenced it may be by Starr's anxious thoughts of her, had
dreamed of him; one of those vivid, intimate dreams that color our moods
and our thoughts long after we awaken. She had dreamed of being with him
in the moonlight again; and Starr had sung again the love song of the
desert, and had afterwards taken her in his arms and held her close, and
kissed her twice lingeringly, looking deep into her eyes afterwards.
She had awakened with the thrill of those kisses still tingling her lips,
so that she had covered her face with both hands in a sort of shamed joy
that dreams could be so terribly real--so terribly sweet, too. And then,
not fifteen minutes after she awoke, and while the dream yet clogged her
reason, Starr himself had confronted her when she opened the door. She
would have been a remarkable young woman if she had not been flustered
and nervous and inclined toward incoherent speech.
And now, it was perfectly idiotic to judge a man's temper by the back of
his neck, she told herself fiercely in the kitchen; perfectly idiotic,
yet she did it. She was impressed with his displeasure, his bitterness,
with some change in him which she could not define to herself. She wanted
to cry, and she did not in the least know what there could possibly be to
Vic appeared, tousled and yawning and stupid as an owl in the sun. He
growled because the water bucket was empty and he must go to the spring,
and he irritated Helen May to the point of wanting to shake him, when he
went limping down the path. She even called out sharply that he was
limping with the wrong foot, and that he ought to tie a string around his
lame ankle so he could remember which one it was. Which made her feel
more disagreeable than ever, because Vic really did have a bad ankle, as
the swelling had proven when he went to bed last night.
Nothing seemed to go right, after that. She scorched the bacon, and she
caught her sleeve on the handle of the coffee pot and spilled about half
the coffee, besides burning her wrist to a blister. She broke a cup, but
that had been cracked when she came, and at any other time she would not
have been surprised at all, or jarred out of her calm. She took out the
muffins she had hurried to make for Starr, and they stuck to the tins and
came out in ragged pieces, which is enough to drive any woman desperate,
I suppose. Vic slopped water on the floor when he came back with the
bucket full, and the wind swooped a lot of sand into the kitchen, and
she was certain the bacon would be gritty as well as burned.
Of Starr she had not heard a sound, and she went to the door nervously to
call him when breakfast was at last on the table. He was standing exactly
as he had stood when she left the room. So far as she could see, he had
not moved a muscle or turned his head or winked an eyelid. His stoniness
chilled her so that it was an effort to form words to tell him that
breakfast was ready.
There was an instant's pause before he turned, and Helen May felt that he
had almost decided not to eat. But he followed her to the kitchen and
spoke to Vic quite humanly, as he took the chair she offered, and
unfolded the napkin that struck an odd note of refinement among its
makeshift surroundings; for the stove had only two real legs, the other
two corners being propped up on rocks; the dish cupboard was of boxes,
and everything in the way of food supplies stood scantily hidden behind
thin curtains of white dotted swiss that Helen May had brought with her.
An hour ago Starr would have dwelt gloatingly upon these graceful
evidences of Helen May's brave fight against the crudities of her
surroundings. Now they gave him a keener thrust of pain. So did the
tremble of her hand when Helen May poured his coffee; it betrayed to
Starr her guilty fear that he had seen what was on those two papers. He
glanced up at her face, and caught her own troubled glance just flicking
away from him. She was scared, then! he told himself. She was watching to
see if he had read anything that seemed suspicious. Well, he'd have to
calm her down a little, just as a matter of policy. He couldn't let her
tip him off to the bunch, whatever happened.
Starr smiled. "I sure feel like I'm imposing on good nature," he said,
looking at her again with careful friendliness. "Coming here begging for
breakfast, and now when you've gone to the trouble of cooking it, I've
got one of my pet headaches that won't let me enjoy anything. Hits me
that way sometimes when I've had an extra long ride. But I sure wish it
had waited awhile."
Helen May gave him a quick, hopeful smile. "I have some awfully good
tablets," she said. "Wait till I give you one, before you eat. My doctor
gave me a supply before I left home, because I have headache so much--or
did have. I'm getting much better, out here! I've hardly felt like the
same person, the last two or three weeks."
"You have got to show me where you're any better _acting_," Vic pointed
out, with the merciless candor of beauty's young brother. "It sure ain't
your disposition that's improved, I can tell you those."
"And with those few remarks you can close," Helen May retorted gleefully,
hurrying off to get the headache tablet. It was just a headache, poor
fellow! He wasn't peeved at all, and nothing was wrong!
It was astonishing how her mood had lightened in the past two minutes.
She got him a glass of water to help the tablet down his throat, and
stood close beside him while he swallowed it and thanked her, and began
to make some show of eating his breakfast. She was, in fact, the same
whimsically charming Helen May he had come to care a great deal for.
That made things harder than ever for Starr. If the tablet had been
prescribed for heartache rather than headache, Starr would have swallowed
thankfully the dose. The murder, over against the other line of hills,
had not seemed to him so terrible as those sheets of scribbled paper
locked away inside Helen May's desk. The grief of Estan's mother over her
dead son was no more bitter than was Starr's grief at what he believed
was true of Helen May. Indeed, Starr's trouble was greater, because he
must mask it with a smile.
All through breakfast he talked with her, looked into her eyes, smiled at
her across the table. But he was white under his tan. She thought that
was from his headache, and was kinder than she meant to be because of
it; perhaps because of her dream too, though she was not conscious of any
change in her manner.
Starr could have cursed her for that change, which he believed was a sly
attempt to win him over and make him forget anything he may have read on
those pages. He would not think of it then; time enough when he was away
and need not pretend or set a guard over his features and his tongue. The
hurt was there, the great, incredible, soul-searing hurt; but he would
not dwell upon what had caused that hurt. He forced himself to talk and
to laugh now and then, but afterwards he could not remember what they had
As soon as he decently could, he went away again into the howling wind
that had done him so ill a turn. He did not know what he should do; this
discovery that Helen May was implicated had set him all at sea, but he
felt that he must get away somewhere and think the whole thing out before
he went crazy.
He left the Basin, rode around behind it and, leaving Rabbit in the
thicket where he had left him the day before, he toiled up the pinnacle
and sat down in the shelter of a boulder pile where he would be out of
the wind as well as out of sight, and where he could still stare somberly
down at the cabin.
And there he faced his trouble bravely, and at the same time he
fulfilled his duty toward his government by keeping a watch over the
place that seemed to him then the most suspicious place in the country.
The office of _Las Nuevas_, even, was not more so, as Starr saw things
then. For if _Las Nuevas_ were the distributing point for the propaganda
literature, this cabin of Helen May's seemed to be the fountain head.
First of all, and going back to the beginning, how did he really _know_
that her story was true? How, for instance, did he know that her father
had not been one of the heads of the conspiracy? How did he know that her
father--it might even be her husband!--was dead? He had simply accepted
her word, as a matter of course, because she was a young woman, and more
attractive than the average young woman. Starr was terribly bitter, at
that point in his reasoning, and even felt certain that he hated all
women. Well, then, her reason for being in the neighborhood would bear a
lot of looking into.
Then there was that automobile that had passed where he had found her and
her goats, that evening. Was it plausible, he asked himself, that she had
actually walked over there? The machine had returned along the same
trail, running by moonlight with its lights out. Might it not have been
coming to pick her up? Only he had happened along, and she had let him
walk home with her, probably to keep him where she could watch him!
There was that shot at him from the pinnacle behind her cabin. There was
her evident familiarity with firearms, though she professed not to own a
gun. There was the man who had been down there with her, not more than an
hour after he had left her with a bullet burn across his arm. Starr saw
now how that close conversation might easily have been a conference
between her and the man who had shot at him.
There was the light in her window at one o'clock in the morning, and the
machine with dimmed headlights making toward her place. There was her
evident caution against undesirable callers, her coming to the door with
a six-shooter hidden against her skirt. There was that handwriting, to
which Starr would unhesitatingly have sworn as being the same as on the
pages he had found in the office of _Las Nuevas_. The writing was
unmistakable: fine, even, symmetrical as print, yet hard to decipher;
slanting a little to the left instead of the right. He had studied too
often the pages in his pocket not to recognize it at a glance.
Most damning evidence of all the evidence against her were two or three
words which his eyes had picked from the context on the page uppermost in
his hand. He had become familiar with those words, written in that
peculiar chirography. "Justice... submission ... ruling ..." He had
caught them at a glance, though he did not know how they were connected,
or what relation they bore to the general theme. Political bunk, his mind
tagged it therefore, and had no doubt whatever that he was right.
"She's got brown eyes and blond hair, and that looks like mixed blood,"
he reminded himself suddenly, after he had sat for a long while staring
down at the house. "How do I know her folks aren't Spanish or something?
How do I know anything about her? I just swallowed what she handed
out--like a damn' fool!"
Just after noon, when the wind had shown some sign of dying down to a
more reasonable blow, Helen May came forth in her riding skirt and a
Tam o' Shanter cap and a sweater, with a package under her arm--a
package of manuscript which she had worked late to finish and was now
going to deliver.
She got the pinto pony which Vic had just ridden sulkily down to the
corral and left for her, and she rode away down the trail, jolting a good
deal in the saddle when the pinto trotted a few steps, but apparently
well pleased with herself.
Starr watched until she turned into the main trail that led toward San
Bonito. Then, when he was reasonably sure of the direction she meant to
take, he hurried down to where Rabbit waited, mounted that long-suffering
animal and followed, using short cuts and deep washes that would hide him
from sight, but keeping Helen May in view most of the time for all that.
HOLMAN SOMMERS TURNS PROPHET
Holman Sommers, clad outwardly in old wool trousers of a dingy gray, a
faded brown smoking jacket that had shrunk in many washings until it was
three inches too short in the sleeves, and old brown slippers, sat tilted
back in a kitchen chair against the wall of his house and smoked a
beautifully colored meerschaum with solid gold bands and a fine amber
mouthpiece, while he conferred comfortably with one Elfigo Apodaca.
There was no quizzical twinkle in the eyes of Holman Sommers, vividly
alive though they were always. With his low slipper heels hooked over
the rung of his chair and his right hand nursing the bowl of his pipe
and his black hair rumpled in the wind, he was staring at the granite
"I am indeed sorry to hear that Estan Medina was shot," he said after a
pause. "Even in the interests of the Cause it was absolutely
unjustifiable. The man could do no harm; indeed, he served to divert
suspicion from others. Only crass stupidity would resort to brute
violence in the effort to further propaganda. Laying aside the human--"
"Of course," Elfigo interrupted sarcastically, "there's nothing violent
in a revolution! Where do you get your argument for gentleness, Holly?
That's what bothers me. You can stir up a bunch of Mexicans quicker than
a barrel of mezcal with your revolution talks."
"Ah, but you do not take into account the great, fundamental truth that
cooperative effort, on the part of the proletariat, is wholly
justifiable, in that it furthers the good of all humanity. Whereas
violence on the part of the individual merely retards the final result
for which we are striving. The murder of Estan Medina, for instance, may
be the one display of individual violence which will nullify all our
efforts toward a common good.
"For myself, I am bending every energy toward the formation of a
cooperative colony which will demonstrate the feasibility of a
cooperative form of government for the whole nation--the whole world, in
fact. Your Junta has pledged itself to the assistance of this colony, the
incalculable benefits of which will, I verily believe, be the very
salvation of Mexico as a nation. Mexico, now in the throes of national
parturition, is logically the pioneer in the true socialistic form of
government. From Mexico the seed will be carried overseas to drop upon
soil made fertile by the bones of those sacrificed to the blood-lust of
the war mad lords of Europe.
"Here, in this little corner of the world, is where the first tiny plant
must be grown. Can you not grasp, then, the tremendous significance of
what, on the face of it, is the pitifully small attempt of a pitifully
weak people to strike a feeble blow for the freedom of labor? To
frustrate that feeble blow now, by the irresponsible, lawless murder
of a good citizen, merely because he failed at first to grasp the meaning
of the lesson placed before him to learn, is, to my way of thinking, not
only unjustifiable but damnably weak and reprehensible."
Elfigo Apodaca, in another kitchen chair tilted back against an angle of
the wall so that he half faced Holman Sommers, stretched out his legs and
smiled tolerantly. A big, good-looking, thoroughly Americanized Mexican
was Elfigo; the type of man who may be found at sunrise whipping the best
stream in the State, the first morning of the trout season; the type of
man whose machine noses in the closest to the judge's stand when a big
race is on; the type of man who dances most, collects the most picture
postals of pretty girls, laughs most at after-dinner speeches; the type
of man who either does not marry at all, or attains much notoriety when
the question of alimony is being fought out to the last cipher; the last
man you would point out as a possible conspirator against anything save
the peace and dignity of some other man's home. But it takes money to be
all of these things, and Elfigo could see a million or two ahead of him
along the revolution trail. That is why he smiled tolerantly upon his
colleague who talked of humanity instead of dollars.
Then Elfigo harked back frowningly to what Holman Sommers had said about
feebleness. He rolled his cigar from the right corner of his mouth to the
left corner and spoke his thought.
"Speaking of feeble blow, and all that bunk," he said irreverently, "how
do we stand, Holly? Just between you and me as men--cut out any interest
we may have in the game--what's your honest opinion? Do we win?"
Holman Sommers raised one hand and hid the amused twitching of his lips.
He could have put that question far more clearly, he believed, and he
could have expressed much better the thought that was in Elfigo's mind.
He had deliberately baited Elfigo, and it amused him to see how blindly
the bait had been taken. He regarded Elfigo through half closed lids.
"As a matter of fact, and speaking relatively, every concerted revolt on
the part of the proletariat is a victory. Though every leader in the
movement be placed with his back against a stone wall, there to stand
until he falls to the earth riddled with bullets, yet have the people
won; a step nearer the goal, one more page writ in the glowing history of
the advancement of the human race toward a true brotherhood of man. There
can be no end save ultimate victory. That the victory may not be apparent
for fifty years, or a hundred, cannot in any sense alter the immutable
law of evolution. Posterity will point back to this present uprising as
the first real blow struck for the freedom of the laboring classes of
Mexico, and, indirectly, of the whole world."
Elfigo, his thumbs hooked in the armholes of his vest, mark of the
dominant note in the human male since clothes were invented to furnish
armholes for egotistic thumbs, contemplated his polished tan shoes
"Oh, to hell with posterity!" he blurted impatiently. "What about us poor
devils that's furnishing the time and money and brains to put it over? Do
we get lined up against a wall?"
Holly Sommers chuckled. "Not if your car can put you across the line soon
enough. Then, even though Mexico might be called upon to execute one
Elfigo Apodaca as an example to the souls in bondage, some other
bullet-riddled cadaver with your name and physical likeness would do as
well as your own carcass." He chuckled again.
"Cheerful prospect," grinned Elfigo ruefully. "But I like a sporting
chance, myself. The real point I'm trying to get at is, what chance do
you think the Alliance has got of winning? Come down outa the clouds,
Holly, and never mind about humanity for a minute. You've helped organize
the Alliance, you've talked to the hombres, you've been the god in the
machine in this part of the country, and all that. Now be a prophet in
words of one syllable and tell me what you think of the outlook."
With his fingers Holly Sommers packed the tobacco down into the bowl of
his pipe. His whole expression changed from the philosopher to the
cunning leader of what might well be called a forlorn hope.
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