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At The End Of The Road








From: The Light Of Western Stars

Madeline saw that the car was surrounded by armed Mexicans. They
presented a contrast to the others she had seen that day; she wondered a
little at their silence, at their respectful front.

Suddenly a sharp spoken order opened up the ranks next to the house.
Senor Montes appeared in the break, coming swiftly. His dark face wore a
smile; his manner was courteous, important, authoritative.

"Senora, it is not too late!"

He spoke her language with an accent strange to her, so that it seemed
to hinder understanding.

"Senora, you got here in time," he went on. "El Capitan Stewart will be
free."

"Free!" she whispered.

She rose, reeling.

"Come," replied Montes, taking her arm. "Perdoneme, Senora."

Without his assistance she would have fallen wholly upon Nels, who
supported her on the other side. They helped her alight from the car.
For a moment the white walls, the hazy red sky, the dark figures of the
rebels, whirled before Madeline's eyes. She took a few steps, swaying
between her escorts; then the confusion of her sight and mind passed
away. It was as if she quickened with a thousand vivifying currents,
as if she could see and hear and feel everything in the world, as if
nothing could be overlooked, forgotten, neglected.

She turned back, remembering Link. He was lurching from the car, helmet
and goggles thrust back, the gray shade gone from his face, the cool,
bright gleam of his eyes disappearing for something warmer.

Senor Montes led Madeline and her cowboys through a hall to a patio,
and on through a large room with flooring of rough, bare boards that
rattled, into a smaller room full of armed quiet rebels facing an open
window.

Madeline scanned the faces of these men, expecting to see Don Carlos.
But he was not present. A soldier addressed her in Spanish too swiftly
uttered, too voluble for her to translate. But, like Senor Montes, he
was gracious and, despite his ragged garb and uncouth appearance, he
bore the unmistakable stamp of authority.

Montes directed Madeline's attention to a man by the window. A loose
scarf of vivid red hung from his hand.

"Senora, they were waiting for the sun to set when we arrived," said
Montes. "The signal was about to be given for Senor Stewart's walk to
death."

"Stewart's walk!" echoed Madeline.

"Ah, Senora, let me tell you his sentence--the sentence I have had the
honor and happiness to revoke for you."

Stewart had been court-martialed and sentenced according to a Mexican
custom observed in cases of brave soldiers to whom honorable and fitting
executions were due. His hour had been set for Thursday when the sun had
sunk. Upon signal he was to be liberated and was free to walk out into
the road, to take any direction he pleased. He knew his sentence; knew
that death awaited him, that every possible avenue of escape was blocked
by men with rifles ready. But he had not the slightest idea at what
moment or from what direction the bullets were to come.

"Senora, we have sent messengers to every squad of waiting soldiers--an
order that El Capitan is not to be shot. He is ignorant of his release.
I shall give the signal for his freedom."

Montes was ceremonious, gallant, emotional. Madeline saw his pride, and
divined that the situation was one which brought out the vanity, the
ostentation, as well as the cruelty of his race. He would keep her in
an agony of suspense, let Stewart start upon that terrible walk in
ignorance of his freedom. It was the motive of a Spaniard. Suddenly
Madeline had a horrible quaking fear that Montes lied, that he meant her
to be a witness of Stewart's execution. But no, the man was honest;
he was only barbarous. He would satisfy certain instincts of his
nature--sentiment, romance, cruelty--by starting Stewart upon that walk,
by watching Stewart's actions in the face of seeming death, by seeing
Madeline's agony of doubt, fear, pity, love. Almost Madeline felt that
she could not endure the situation. She was weak and tottering.

"Senora! Ah, it will be one beautiful thing!" Montes caught the scarf
from the rebel's hand. He was glowing, passionate; his eyes had a
strange, soft, cold flash; his voice was low, intense. He was living
something splendid to him. "I'll wave the scarf, Senora. That will be
the signal. It will be seen down at the other end of the road. Senor
Stewart's jailer will see the signal, take off Stewart's irons, release
him, open the door for his walk. Stewart will be free. But he will not
know. He will expect death. As he is a brave man, he will face it. He
will walk this way. Every step of that walk he will expect to be shot
from some unknown quarter. But he will not be afraid. Senora, I have
seen El Captain fighting in the field. What is death to him? Ah, will it
not be magnificent to see him come forth--to walk down? Senora, you will
see what a man he is. All the way he will expect cold, swift death. Here
at this end of the road he will meet his beautiful lady!"

"Is there no--no possibility of a mistake?" faltered Madeline.

"None. My order included unloading of rifles."

"Don Carlos?"

"He is in irons, and must answer to General Salazar," replied Montes.

Madeline looked down the deserted road. How strange to see the last
ruddy glow of the sun over the brow of the mountain range! The thought
of that sunset had been torture for her. Yet it had passed, and now the
afterlights were luminous, beautiful, prophetic.

With a heart stricken by both joy and agony, she saw Montes wave the
scarf.

Then she waited. No change manifested itself down the length of that
lonely road. There was absolute silence in the room behind her. How
terribly, infinitely long seemed the waiting! Never in all her future
life would she forget the quaint pink, blue, and white walled houses
with their colored roofs. That dusty bare road resembled one of the
uncovered streets of Pompeii with its look of centuries of solitude.

Suddenly a door opened and a tall man stepped out.

Madeline recognized Stewart. She had to place both hands on the
window-sill for support, while a storm of emotion swayed her. Like
a retreating wave it rushed away. Stewart lived. He was free. He had
stepped out into the light. She had saved him. Life changed for her in
that instant of realization and became sweet, full, strange.

Stewart shook hands with some one in the doorway. Then he looked up
and down the road. The door closed behind him. Leisurely he rolled a
cigarette, stood close to the wall while he scratched a match. Even at
that distance Madeline's keen eyes caught the small flame, the first
little puff of smoke.

Stewart then took to the middle of the road and leisurely began his
walk.

To Madeline he appeared natural, walked as unconcernedly as if he were
strolling for pleasure; but the absence of any other living thing,
the silence, the red haze, the surcharged atmosphere--these were all
unnatural. From time to time Stewart stopped to turn face forward toward
houses and corners. Only silence greeted these significant moves of his.
Once he halted to roll and light another cigarette. After that his step
quickened.

Madeline watched him, with pride, love, pain, glory combating for a
mastery over her. This walk of his seemingly took longer than all her
hours of awakening, of strife, of remorse, longer than the ride to
find him. She felt that it would be impossible for her to wait till he
reached the end of the road. Yet in the hurry and riot of her feelings
she had fleeting panics. What could she say to him? How meet him? Well
she remembered the tall, powerful form now growing close enough to
distinguish its dress. Stewart's face was yet only a dark gleam. Soon
she would see it--long before he could know she was there. She wanted to
run to meet him. Nevertheless, she stood rooted to her covert behind the
window, living that terrible walk with him to the uttermost thought of
home, sister, mother, sweetheart, wife, life itself--every thought that
could come to a man stalking to meet his executioners. With all
that tumult in her mind and heart Madeline still fell prey to the
incomprehensible variations of emotion possible to a woman. Every step
Stewart took thrilled her. She had some strange, subtle intuition that
he was not unhappy, and that he believed beyond shadow of doubt that he
was walking to his death. His steps dragged a little, though they had
begun to be swift. The old, hard, physical, wild nerve of the cowboy was
perhaps in conflict with spiritual growth of the finer man, realizing
too late that life ought not to be sacrificed.

Then the dark gleam that was his face took shape, grew sharper and
clearer. He was stalking now, and there was a suggestion of impatience
in his stride. It took these hidden Mexicans a long time to kill him! At
a point in the middle of the road, even with the corner of a house
and opposite to Madeline's position, Stewart halted stock-still. He
presented a fair, bold mark to his executioners, and he stood there
motionless a full moment.

Only silence greeted him. Plain it was to Madeline, and she thought to
all who had eyes to see, that to Stewart, since for some reason he had
been spared all along his walk, this was the moment when he ought to be
mercifully shot. But as no shots came a rugged dignity left him for a
reckless scorn manifest in the way he strolled, across to the corner of
the house, rolled yet another cigarette, and, presenting a broad breast
to the window, smoked and waited.

That wait was almost unendurable for Madeline. Perhaps it was only a
moment, several moments at the longest, but the time seemed a year.
Stewart's face was scornful, hard. Did he suspect treachery on the part
of his captors, that they meant to play with him as a cat with a
mouse, to murder him at leisure? Madeline was sure she caught the
old, inscrutable, mocking smile fleeting across his lips. He held that
position for what must have been a reasonable time to his mind, then
with a laugh and a shrug he threw the cigarette into the road. He shook
his head as if at the incomprehensible motives of men who could have no
fair reasons now for delay.

He made a sudden violent action that was more than a straightening of
his powerful frame. It was the old instinctive violence. Then he faced
north. Madeline read his thought, knew he was thinking of her, calling
her a last silent farewell. He would serve her to his last breath, leave
her free, keep his secret. That picture of him, dark-browed, fire-eyed,
strangely sad and strong, sank indelibly into Madeline's heart of
hearts.

The next instant he was striding forward, to force by bold and scornful
presence a speedy fulfilment of his sentence.

Madeline stepped into the door, crossed the threshold. Stewart staggered
as if indeed the bullets he expected had pierced him in mortal wound.
His dark face turned white. His eyes had the rapt stare, the wild fear
of a man who saw an apparition, yet who doubted his sight. Perhaps he
had called to her as the Mexicans called to their Virgin; perhaps
he imagined sudden death had come unawares, and this was her image
appearing to him in some other life.

"Who--are--you?" he whispered, hoarsely.

She tried to lift her hands, failed, tried again, and held them out,
trembling.

"It is I. Majesty. Your wife!"





Next: Lassiter

Previous: The Ride



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