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A Clean White Man's Option








From: Bucky O'connor

The light of a lantern coming down the steps blinded them for a moment.
Behind the lantern peered the yellow face of the turnkey. "Ho, there,
Americano! They want you up above," the man said. "The generals, and the
colonels, and the captains want a little talk with you before they hang
you, senor."

The two soldiers behind the fellow cackled merrily at his wit, and the
encouraged turnkey tried again.

"We shall trouble you but a little time. Only a few questions, senor,
an order, and then poco tiempo, after a short walk to the
gallows--paradise."

"What--what do you mean?" gasped the girl whitely.

"Never mind, muchacho. This is no affair of yours. Your turn will come
later. Have no fear of that," nodded the wrinkled old parchment face.

"But--but he hasn't done anything wrong."

"Ho, ho! Let him explain that to the generals and the colonels," croaked
the old fellow. "And that you may explain the sooner, senor, hurry--let
your feet fly!"

Bucky walked across to the girl he loved and took her hands in his.

"If I don't come back before three hours read the letter that I wrote
you yesterday, dear. I have left matches on that bench so that you may
have a light. Be brave, pardner. Don't lose your nerve, whatever you do.
We'll both get out of this all right yet."

He spoke in a low voice, so that the guards might not hear, and it was
in kind that she answered.

"I'm afraid, Bucky; afraid away down deep. You don't half believe
yourself what you say. I can't stand it to be here alone and not know
what's going on. They might be--be doing what that man said, and I not
know anything about it till afterward." She broke down and began to sob.
"Oh, I know I'm a dreadful little coward, but I can't be like you--and
you heard what he said."

"Sho! What he says is nothing. I'm an American citizen, and I reckon
that will carry us through all right. Uncle Sam has awful long arms, and
these greasers know it. I'm expecting to come back here again, little
pardner. But if I don't make it, I want you, just as soon as they turn
you loose, to go straight to your father's ranch."

"Come! This won't do. Look alive, senor," the turnkey ordered, and to
emphasize his words reached a hand forward to pluck away the sobbing
lad. Bucky caught his wrist and tightened on it like a vise. "Hands off,
here!" he commanded quietly.

The man gave a howl of pain and nursed his hand gingerly after it was
released.

"Oh, Bucky, make him let me go, too," the girl wailed, clinging to his
coat.

Gently he unfastened her fingers. "You know I would if I could, Curly;
but it isn't my say-so."

And with that he was gone. Ashen-faced she watched him go, and as soon
as the door had closed groped her way to the bench and sank down on it,
her face covered with her hands. He was going to his death. Her lover
was going to his death. Why had she let him go? Why had she not done
something--thought of some way to save him?

The ranger's guards led him to the military headquarters in the next
street from the prison. He observed that nearly a whole company of
Rurales formed the escort, and this led him to conclude that the
government party was very uneasy as to the situation and had taken
precautions against a possible attempt at rescue. But no such attempt
was made. The sunny streets were pretty well deserted, except for a few
lounging peons hardly interested enough to be curious. The air of peace,
of order, sat so incongruously over the plaza that Bucky's heart fell.
Surely this was the last place on earth for a revolution to make any
headway of consequence. His friends were hidden away in holes and
cellars, while Megales dominated the situation with his troops. To
expect a reversal of the situation was surely madness.

Yet even while the thought was in his mind he caught a glimpse in a
doorway of a man he recognized. It was Rodrigo, one of his allies of the
previous night's escapade, and it seemed to him that the man was trying
to tell him something with his eyes. If so, the meaning of his message
failed to carry home, for after the ranger had passed he dared not look
back again.

So far as the trial itself went, O'Connor hoped for nothing and was the
less disappointed. One glance at his judges was enough to convince him
of the futility of expectation. He was tried by a court-martial presided
over by General Carlo. Beside him sat a Colonel Onate and Lieutenant
Chaves. In none of the three did he find any room for hope. Carlo was
a hater of Americans and a butcher by temperament and choice, Chaves
a personal enemy of the prisoner, and Onate looked as grim an old
scoundrel as Jeffreys the hanging judge of James Stuart. Governor
Megales, though not technically a member of the court, was present, and
took an active part in the prosecution. He was a stout, swarthy little
man, with black, beady eyes that snapped restlessly to and fro, and from
his manner to the officers in charge of the trial it was plain that he
was a despot even in his own official family.

The court did not trouble itself with forms of law. Chaves was both
principal witness and judge, notwithstanding the protest of the
prisoner. Yet what the lieutenant had to offer in the way of testimony
was so tinctured with bitterness that it must have been plain to the
veriest novice he was no fit judge of the case.

But Bucky knew as well as the judges that his trial was a merely
perfunctory formality. The verdict was decided ere it began, and,
indeed, so eager was Megales to get the farce over with that several
times he interrupted the proceedings to urge haste.

It took them just fifteen minutes from the time the young American was
brought into the room to find him guilty of treason and to decide upon
immediate execution as the fitting punishment.

General Carlo turned to the prisoner. "Have you anything to say before I
pronounce sentence of death upon you?"

"I have," answered Bucky, looking him straight in the eyes. "I am an
American, and I demand the rights of a citizen of the United States."

"An American?" Incredulously Megales lifted his eyebrows. "You are a
Spanish gypsy, my friend."

The ranger was fairly caught in his own trap. He had donned the gypsy
masquerade because he did not want to be taken for what he was, and he
had succeeded only too well. He had played into their hands. They would,
of course, claim, in the event of trouble with the United States, that
they had supposed him to be what his costume proclaimed him, and they
would be able to make good their pretense with a very decent appearance
of candor. What an idiot of sorts he had been!

"We understand each other perfectly, governor. I know and you know
that I am an American. As a citizen of the United States I claim the
protection of that flag. I demand that you will send immediately for the
United States consul to this city."

Megales leaned forward with a thin, cruel smile on his face. "Very
well, senor. Let it be as you say. Your friend, Senor O'Halloran, is the
United States consul. I shall be very glad to send for him if you can
tell me where to find him. Having business with him to-day, I have
despatched messengers who have been unable to find him at home. But
since you know where he is, and are in need of him, perhaps you can
assist me with information of value."

Again Bucky was fairly caught. He had no reason to doubt that the
governor spoke truth in saying that O'Halloran was the United States
consul. There were in the city as permanent residents not more than
three or four citizens of the United States. With the political instinct
of the Irish, it would be very characteristic of O'Halloran to work his
"pull" to secure for himself the appointment. That he had not happened
to mention the fact to his friend could be accounted for by reason
of the fact that the duties of the office at that place were few and
unimportant.

"We are waiting, senor. If you will tell us where we may send?" hinted
Megales.

"I do not know any more than you do, if he is not at home."

The governor's eyes glittered. "Take care, senor. Better sharpen your
memory."

"It's pretty hard to remember what one never knew," retorted the
prisoner.

The Mexican tyrant brought his clinched fist slowly down on the table
in front of him. "It is necessary to remember, sir. It is necessary to
answer a few questions. If you answer them to our satisfaction you may
yet save your life."

"Indeed!" Bucky swept his fat bulk scornfully from head to foot. "If I
were what you think me, do you suppose I would betray my friends?"

"You have no option, sir. Answer my questions, or die like a dog."

"You mean that you would not think you had any option if you were in my
place, but since I'm a clean white man there's an option. By God! sir,
it doesn't take me a whole lot of time to make it, either. I'll see you
rot in hell before I'll play Judas."

The words rang like a bell through the room, not loud, but clear and
vibrant. There was a long instant's silence after the American finished
speaking, and as his eyes swept from one to another of the enemy Bucky
met with a surprise. On Colonel Onate's face was a haggard look of
fear--surely it was fear--that lifted in relief at the young man's brave
challenge. He had been dreading something, and the dread was lifted.
Onate! Onate! The ranger's memory searched the past few days to locate
the name. Had O'Halloran mentioned it? Was this man one of the officers
expected to join the opposition when it declared itself against Megales?
He had a vague recollection of the name, and he could have heard it only
through his friend.

"Was Juan Valdez a member of the party that took the rifles from
Lieutenant Chaves and his escort?"

Bucky laughed out his contempt.

"Speak, sir," broke in Chaves. "Answer the governor, you dog."

"If I speak, it will be to tell you what a cur I think you."

Chaves flushed angrily and laid a hand on his revolver. "Who are you
that play dice with death, like a fool?"

"My name, seh, is Bucky O'Connor."

At the words a certain fear, followed by a look of triumph, passed over
the face of Chaves. It was as if he had had an unpleasant shock that had
instantly proved groundless. Bucky did not at the time understand it.

"Why don't you shoot? It's about your size, you pinhead, to kill an
unarmed man."

"Tell all you know and I promise you your life." It was Megales who
spoke.

"I'll tell you nothing, except that I'm Bucky O'Connor, of the Arizona
Rangers. Chew on that a while, governor, and see how it tastes. Kill me,
and Uncle Sam is liable to ask mighty loud whyfor; not because I'm such
a mighty big toad in the puddle, but because any man that stands under
that flag has back of him the biggest, best, and gamest country on God's
green footstool." Bucky spoke in English this time, straight as he could
send it.

"In that case, I think sentence may now be pronounced, general."

"I warn you that the United States will exact vengeance for my death."

"Indeed!" Politely the governor smiled at him with a malice almost
devilish. "If so, it will be after you are dead, Senor Bucky O'Connor,
of the Arizona Rangers."

Colonel Onate leaned forward and whispered something to General Carlo,
who shook his head and frowned. Presently the black head of Chaves
joined them, and the three were in excited discussion. Arms waved like
signals, as is usual among the Latin races who talk with their hands
and expressive shrugs of the shoulders. Outvoted by two to one, Onate
appealed to the governor, who came up and listened, frowning, to both
sides of the debate. In their excitement the voices raised, and to Bucky
came snatches of phrases that told him his life hung in the balance.
Carlo and Chaves were for having him executed out of hand, at latest, by
sunset. The latter was especially vindictive. Indeed, it seemed to
the ranger that ever since he had mentioned his name this man had set
himself more malevolently to compass his death. Onate maintained, on the
other hand, that their prisoner was worth more to them alive than dead.
There was a chance that he might weaken before morning and tell secrets.
At worst they would still have his life as a card to hold in case of
need over the head of the rebels. If it should turn out that this was
not needed, he could be executed in the morning as well as to-night.

It may be conceived with what anxiety Bucky listened to the whispered
conversation and waited for the decision of the governor. He was a game
man, noted even in a country famous for its courageous citizens, but he
felt strangely weak now as he waited with that leather-crusted face of
his bereft of all expression.

"Give him till morning to weaken. If he still stays obstinate, hang
him in the dawn," decided the governor, his beady eyes fixed on the
prisoner.

Not a flicker of the eyelid betrayed the Arizonian's emotion, but for
an instant the world swam dizzily before him. Safe till morning! Before
then a hundred chances might change the current of the game in his
favor. How brightly the sunshine flooded the room! What a glorious
world it was, after all! Through the open window poured the rich,
full-throated song of a meadow lark, and the burden of its blithe song
was, "How good is this life the mere living."





Next: Bucky's First-rate Reasons

Previous: Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make



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