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A Ranger's Horse








From: Heart Of The Sunset

Onward through the dense foliage the two friends wound. Now and
then they stopped to listen, but the rain was heavy enough to
drown all other noises. Encountering fresh tracks finally, Dave
leaned from his saddle and studied them. What he saw caused him to
push forward with no diminution of stealth.

He had gone perhaps half a mile when Bessie Belle raised her head,
and he noted that her nostrils were working sensitively. A few
yards farther on Law fancied that he could detect the smell of a
wood fire. Almost without a signal from him the mare halted in her
tracks until he had satisfied himself. Still farther along they
came to a place where the brush was low, and there, rising through
the tree-tops beyond, they saw a wavering plume of blue smoke.

The Ranger rode into sight of the branding-fire with his
Winchester across his saddle-horn and his thumb upon the hammer;
what followed came with almost the blinding suddenness of a
lightning crash, though afterward the events of that crowded
moment lingered as a clear-cut memory. First there was the picture
of a sandy glade in the center of which burned a fire with
branding-irons in it, and a spotted calf tied to a tree, but
otherwise no sign of life. Then, without warning, Bessie Belle
threw up her head in that characteristic trick of hers, and
simultaneously Dave saw a figure rise out of the grass at his left
with rifle leveled. The Ranger remembered afterward the odd
foreshortening of the weapon and the crooked twist of the face
behind it. With the first jerk of his horse's head his own gun had
leaped to his shoulder--he was not conscious of having willed it
to do so--and even as he pressed the trigger he beheld a jet of
smoke spurt from the muzzle aimed at him. With the kick of his
carbine he felt Bessie Belle give way--it seemed to Dave that he
shot while she was sinking. The next instant his feet, still in
the stirrups, were on the ground and his horse lay between them,
motionless. That nervous fling of her head had saved Dave's life,
for the rustler's bullet had shattered her skull in its flight,
and she lay prone, with scarcely a muscular twitch, so sudden had
been her end. The breath escaped slowly from her lungs; it was as
if she heaved a lingering sigh; one leg contracted and then
relaxed.

For a moment the Ranger was dazed. He stood staring down at his
pet; then the truth engulfed him. He realized that he had ridden
her to her death, and at the thought he became like a woman bereft
of her child, like a lover who had seen his sweetheart slain.

A shout--it was a hoarse, inarticulate cry; a swift, maddened
scrutiny that searched the sodden scene of the ambush; then he was
down beside the mare, calling her name heartbrokenly, his arms
around her neck, his face against her warm, wet, velvet hide.

Law knew that two men had entered the thicket, and therefore one
still remained to be reckoned with, but he gave no thought to
that. Nor did he rise to look after the grotesquely huddled figure
that had been a cattle thief only a moment before--both he and his
assailant had been too close to miss. From the corner of his eye
he could see a pair of boot-soles staring at him out of the grass,
and they told him there was no need for investigation. Near the
body he heard a calf stirring, but he let it struggle.

Bessie Belle's bright eyes were glazing; she did not hear her
lover's voice. Her muzzle, softer than any satin, was loose, her
lips would never twitch with that clumsy, quivering caress which
pleased her master so. One front hoof, washed as clean as agate,
was awkwardly bent under her, the other had plowed a furrow in the
soft earth as she sank, and against this leg her head lay tipped.

Don Ricardo and his son burst out of the brush from opposite
directions almost at the same moment, to find the Ranger with his
face buried in his horse's mane.

"Caramba! What is this?" The old man flung himself from the saddle
and came running. "You are injured?"

Pedro, too, bent over the officer, his brown face pale with
apprehension. "Mother of God!" breathed the latter. "It was a wild
thing to do, to ride alone---"

"I'm all right," Law said, rising stiffly, whereupon both Mexicans
voiced their relief.

"The saints be praised!"

"Si! What happened? There was a shot! Did you see nothing?"

Law jerked his head in the direction of the fallen man at his
back, and Pedro uttered a loud cry.

"Look!" Father and son ran through the grass, then recoiled and
broke into a jargon of oaths and exclamations.

Law followed them with his eyes. "Is he dead?" he inquired,
coldly.

"God! Yes."

"Right in the mouth! The fellow was in hell before he realized
it."

"See! It is as we thought, Pedro; one of Lewis's! Tse! Tse! Tse!
What a sight!"

"Who is he?" queried the officer.

"Pino Garza, one of the worst!" chimed the two Guzmans.

Ricardo was dancing in his excitement. "I told you that Lewis knew
something. The other one got past me, but he rode like the devil,
and I cannot shoot like--this."

"Wait!" exclaimed Pedro. "This is beyond my understanding. I heard
but one shot from here, then after an instant my father's gun. And
yet here is a dead horse and a dead man."

"This fellow and I fired at about the same instant," Dave
explained, but even when he had related the history of the
encounter his companions could scarcely believe that such quick
shooting was possible.

It was difficult to secure a connected story from Ricardo, but he
finally made it plain that at the first report the other thief had
fled, exposing himself only long enough for the old man to take a
quick shot in his direction. Ricardo had missed, and the miscreant
was doubtless well away by this time. He had ridden a sorrel
horse, that was all Ricardo could remember.

Law looked only briefly at the gruesome results of his
marksmanship, then he turned back to the body of his beloved mare.
Ricardo noticed at length that he was crying; as the Ranger knelt
beside the dead thoroughbred the old Mexican whispered to his son:

"Valgame Dios! This is a strange fellow. He weeps like a woman. He
must have loved that horse as a man loves his wife. Who can
understand these Gringos?" After a time he approached cautiously
and inquired: "What shall we do with this hombre, senor? Pedro has
found his horse."

Law roused himself. With his own hands he gently removed Bessie
Belle's saddle, bridle, and blanket, then he gave his orders.

"I'll take your horse, Ricardo, and you take--that fellow's. Get a
wagon and move him to Jonesville."

"And you?"

"I'm going to follow that man on the sorrel."

The dead man's saddle was left beside the body; then when the
exchange of mounts had been effected and all was ready, Law made a
request that amazed both father and son.

"If I'm not back by morning, I want you to bury my mare." His
voice broke; he turned away his face. "Bury her deep, Ricardo, so-
-the coyotes can't dig her up; right here where she fell. I'll be
back to see that it's done right. Understand?"

"Bueno! I understand perfectly. She was a pretty horse. She was
your--bonita, eh? Well, you have a big heart, senor, as a brave
man should have. Everything shall be done as you wish; I give you

my hand on it." Ricardo reached down and gripped Law's palm. "We
will name our pasture for her, too, because it is plain you loved
her dearly. So, then, until to-morrow."

Law watched his two friends ride away, then he wiped his
Winchester and saw to his cinch. This done he raised Bessie
Belle's head and kissed the lip that had so often explored his
palm for sugar. With a miserable ache in his throat he mounted and
rode off to pick up the trail of the man on the sorrel pony.

Fortunately this was not difficult, for the tracks of a running
horse are plain in soft ground. Finding where his quarry had
broken cover, Law set out at a lope.

The fellow had ridden in a wide semicircle at first, then, finding
he was not pursued, he had slackened pace, and, in consequence,
the signs became more difficult to follow. They seemed to lead in
the direction of Las Palmas, which Dave judged must be fully
twelve miles away, and when they continued to maintain this course
the Ranger became doubly interested. Could it be, he asked
himself, that his quarry would have the audacity to ride to the
Austin headquarters? If so, his identification promised to become
easy, for a man on a sorrel cow-pony was more than likely to be
observed. Perhaps he thought himself secure and counted upon the
assistance of some friend or confederate among the Las Palmas
ranch-hands in case of pursuit. That seemed not unreasonable,
particularly inasmuch as he could have no suspicion that it was a
Ranger who was on his trail.

Dave lost the hoof-prints for a time, but picked them up again at
the pasture gate a few miles farther on, and was able to trace
them far enough to assure himself that his quarry was indeed
headed for the Austin house and had no intention of swinging
southward toward the Lewis headquarters.

By this time the rain had done its work, and to follow the tracks
became a matter of guesswork. Night was coming on also, and Dave
realized that at this rate darkness would find him far from his
goal. Therefore he risked his own interpretation of the rider's
intent and pushed on without pausing to search out the trail step
by step. At the second gate the signs indicated that his man was
little more than an hour ahead of him.

The prospect of again seeing the ruddy-haired mistress of Las
Palmas stirred Law more deeply than he cared to admit. Alaire
Austin had been seldom out of his thoughts since their first
meeting, for, after the fashion of men cut off from human society,
he was subject to insistent fancies. Dave had many times lived
over those incidents at the water-hole, and for the life of him he
could not credit the common stories of Alaire's coldness. To him,
at least, she had appeared very human, and after they had once
become acquainted she had been unaffected and friendly.

Since that meeting Dave had picked up considerable information
about the object of his interest, and although much of this was
palpably false, it had served to make her a still more romantic
figure in his eyes. Alaire now seemed to be a sort of superwoman,
and the fact that she was his friend, that something deep within
her had answered to him, afforded him a keen satisfaction, the
greater, perhaps, because of his surprise that it could be go.
Nevertheless, he was uncomfortably aware that she had a husband.
Not only so, but the sharp contrast in their positions was
disagreeable to contemplate; she was unbelievably rich, and a
person of influence in the state, while he had nothing except his
health, his saddle, and his horse---

With a desperate pang Law realized that now he had no horse.
Bessie Belle, his best beloved, lay cold and wet back yonder in
the weeping mesquite. He found several cubes of sugar in his
pocket, and with an oath flung them from him. Don Ricardo's horse
seemed stiff-gaited and stubborn.

Dave remembered how Mrs. Austin had admired the mare. No doubt she
would grieve at the fate that had befallen her, and that would
give them something to talk about. His own escape would interest
her, too, and--Law realized, not without some natural
gratification, that he would appear to her as a sort of hero.

The mist and an early dusk prevented him from seeing Las Palmas
itself until he was well in among the irrigated fields. A few
moments later when he rode up to the out-buildings he encountered
a middle-aged Mexican who proved to be Benito Gonzalez, the range
boss.

Dave made himself known, and Benito answered his questions with
apparent honesty. No, he had seen nothing of a sorrel horse or a
strange rider, but he had just come in himself. Doubtless they
could learn more from Juan, the horse-wrangler, who was somewhere
about.

Juan was finally found, but he proved strangely recalcitrant. At
first he knew nothing, though after some questioning he admitted
the possibility that he had seen a horse of the description given,
but was not sure. More pressure brought forth the reluctant
admission that the possibility was almost a certainty.

"What horse was it?" Benito inquired; but the lad was non-
committal. Probably it belonged to some stranger. Juan could not
recollect just where or when he had seen the pony, and he was
certain he had not laid eyes upon the owner.

"Devil take the boy! He's half-witted," Benito growled.

But Dave changed his tactics. "Oiga!" he said, sternly. "Do you
want to go to jail?" Juan had no such desire. "Then tell the
truth. Was the horse branded?"

"Yes."

"With what brand?"

Juan had not noticed.

"With the 'K.T.' perhaps?" That was the Lewis brand.

"Perhaps!"

"Where is it now?"

Juan insolently declared that he didn't know and didn't care.

"Oh, you don't, eh?" Law reached for the boy and shook him until
he yelled. "You will make a nice little prisoner, Juanito, and we
shall find a way to make you speak."

Gonzalez was inclined to resent such high-handed treatment of his
underling, but respect for the Rangers was deep-rooted, and Juan's
behavior was inexplicable.

At last the horse-boy confessed. He had seen both horse and rider,
but knew neither. Mr. Austin and the stranger had arrived
together, and the latter had gone on. That was the truth.

"Bueno!" Law released his prisoner, who slunk away rubbing his
shoulder. "Now, Benito, we will find Mr. Austin."

A voice answered from the dusk: "He won't take much finding," and
Ed Austin himself emerged from the stable door. "Well, what do you
want?" he asked.

"You are Mr. Austin, I reckon?"

"I am. What d'you mean by abusing my help?" The master of Las
Palmas approached so near that his threatening scowl was visible.
"I don't allow strangers to prowl around my premises."

Amazed at this hostile greeting, Law explained in a word the
reason for his presence.

"I don't know anything about your man. What d'you want him for,
and who are you?"

Dave introduced himself. "I want him for stealing Guzman calves. I
trailed him from where he and his partner cut into your south
pasture."

Benito stirred and muttered an oath, but Austin was unmoved. "I
reckon you must be a bad trailer," he laughed. "We've got no
thieves here. What makes you think Guzman lost any calves?"

Dave's temper, never too well controlled at best, began to rise.
He could not imagine why a person of Ed Austin's standing should
behave in this extraordinary manner, unless perhaps he was drunk.

"Well, I saw the calves, and I left the fellow that was branding
them with a wet saddle-blanket over his face."

"Eh? What's that?" Austin started, and Gonzalez uttered a
smothered exclamation. "You killed him? He's dead?"

"Dead enough to skin. I caught him with his irons in the fire and
the calves necked up in your pasture. Now I want his companero."

"I--hope you don't think we know anything about him," Ed
protested.

"Where's that man on the sorrel horse?"

Austin turned away with a shrug.

"You rode in with him," Dave persisted.

Ed wheeled quickly. "How do you know I did?"

"Your boy saw you."

The ranchman's voice was harsh as he said: "Look here, my friend,
you're on the wrong track. The fellow I was with had nothing to do
with this affair. Would you know your man? Did you get a look at
him?"

"No. But I reckon Don Ricardo could tell his horse."

"Humph!" Austin grunted, disagreeably. "So just for that you come
prowling around threatening my help, eh? Trying to frame up a
case, maybe? Well, it don't go. I was out with one of Tad Lewis's
men."

"What was his name?" Dave managed to inquire.

"Urbina. He had a sorrel under him, but there are thousands of
sorrel horses."

"What time did you meet him?"

"I met him at noon and--I've been with him ever since. So you see
you're wrong. I presume your man doubled back and is laughing at
you."

Law's first bewilderment had given place to a black rage; for the
moment he was in danger of disregarding the reason for "Young
Ed's" incivility and giving free rein to his passion, but he
checked himself in time.

"Would you mind telling me what you and this Urbina were doing?"
he inquired, harshly.

Austin laughed mockingly. "That's my business." said he.

Dave moistened his lips. He hitched his shoulders nervously. He
was astonished at his own self-control, though the certainty that
Austin was drunk helped him to steady himself. Nevertheless, he
dared not trust himself to speak.

Construing this silence as an acknowledgment of defeat, Ed turned
to go. Some tardy sense of duty, however, prompted him to fling
back, carelessly:

"I suppose you've come a good ways. If you're hungry, Benito will
show you the way to the kitchen." Then he walked away into the
darkness, followed by the shocked gaze of his range boss.

Benito roused himself from his amazement to say, warmly: "Si,
compadre. You will enjoy a cup of hot coffee."

But Law ground out fiercely: "I'm not used to kitchen hand-outs. I
reckon I can chew my bridle-reins if I get too hungry." Walking to
his horse, he vaulted into the saddle.

Benito laid a hand upon his thigh and apologized. "Senor Ed is a
strange man. He is often like this, lately. You understand me?
Will you come to my house for supper?"

"Thank you, but I think I'll ride on to Tad Lewis's and see
Urbina."

At this the Mexican shook his head as if apprehensive of the
result, but he said nothing more.

Law hesitated as he was about to spur out of the yard. "By the
way," he ventured, "you needn't mention this to Mrs. Austin."

"She is not here," Gonzalez told him. "She has gone to La Feria to
see about her affairs. She would not permit of this occurrence if
she were at home. She is a very fine lady."

"Yes. Good night, Benito."

"Good night, senor."

When the Ranger had gone, Gonzalez walked slowly toward his house
with his head bowed thoughtfully.

"It is very strange," he muttered. "How could Don Eduardo have met
this Garza at noon when, with my own eyes, I saw him ride away
from Las Palmas at three o'clock in the afternoon? It is very
strange."





Next: Judge Ellsworth Exacts A Promise

Previous: A Scouting Trip



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