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Don Carlos's Vaqueros








From: The Light Of Western Stars

Early the following morning Stewart, with a company of cowboys, departed
for Don Carlos's rancho. As the day wore on without any report from
him, Stillwell appeared to grow more at ease; and at nightfall he told
Madeline that he guessed there was now no reason for concern.

"Wal, though it's sure amazin' strange," he continued, "I've been
worryin' some about how we was goin' to fire Don Carlos. But Gene has a
way of doin' things."

Next day Stillwell and Alfred decided to ride over Don Carlos's place,
taking Madeline and Florence with them, and upon the return trip to stop
at Alfred's ranch. They started in the cool, gray dawn, and after three
hours' riding, as the sun began to get bright, they entered a mesquite
grove, surrounding corrals and barns, and a number of low, squat
buildings and a huge, rambling structure, all built of adobe and mostly
crumbling to ruin. Only one green spot relieved the bald red of grounds
and walls; and this evidently was made by the spring which had given
both value and fame to Don Carlos's range. The approach to the house was
through a wide courtyard, bare, stony, hard packed, with hitching-rails
and watering-troughs in front of a long porch. Several dusty, tired
horses stood with drooping heads and bridles down, their wet flanks
attesting to travel just ended.

"Wal, dog-gone it, Al, if there ain't Pat Hawe's hoss I'll eat it,"
exclaimed Stillwell.

"What's Pat want here, anyhow?" growled Alfred.

No one was in sight; but Madeline heard loud voices coming from the
house. Stillwell dismounted at the porch and stalked in at the door.
Alfred leaped off his horse, helped Florence and Madeline down, and,
bidding them rest and wait on the porch, he followed Stillwell.

"I hate these Greaser places," said Florence, with a grimace. "They're
so mysterious and creepy. Just watch now! They'll be dark-skinned,
beady-eyed, soft-footed Greasers slip right up out of the ground!
There'll be an ugly face in every door and window and crack."

"It's like a huge barn with its characteristic odor permeated by tobacco
smoke," replied Madeline, sitting down beside Florence. "I don't think
very much of this end of my purchase. Florence, isn't that Don Carlos's
black horse over there in the corral?"

"It sure is. Then the Don's heah yet. I wish we hadn't been in such a
hurry to come over. There! that doesn't sound encouraging."

From the corridor came the rattling of spurs, tramping of boots, and
loud voices. Madeline detected Alfred's quick notes when he was annoyed:
"We'll rustle back home, then," he said. The answer came, "No!" Madeline
recognized Stewart's voice, and she quickly straightened up. "I won't
have them in here," went on Alfred.

"Outdoors or in, they've got to be with us!" replied Stewart, sharply.
"Listen, Al," came the boom of Stillwell's big voice, "now that we've
butted in over hyar with the girls, you let Stewart run things."

Then a crowd of men tramped pell-mell out upon the porch. Stewart,
dark-browed and somber, was in the lead. Nels hung close to him, and
Madeline's quick glance saw that Nels had undergone some indescribable
change. The grinning, brilliant-eyed Don Carlos came jostling out beside
a gaunt, sharp-featured man wearing a silver shield. This, no doubt,
was Pat Hawe. In the background behind Stillwell and Alfred stood Nick
Steele, head and shoulders over a number of vaqueros and cowboys.

"Miss Hammond, I'm sorry you came," said Stewart, bluntly. "We're in a
muddle here. I've insisted that you and Flo be kept close to us. I'll
explain later. If you can't stop your ears I beg you to overlook rough
talk."

With that he turned to the men behind him: "Nick, take Booly, go back to
Monty and the boys. Fetch out that stuff. All of it. Rustle, now!"

Stillwell and Alfred disengaged themselves from the crowd to take up
positions in front of Madeline and Florence. Pat Hawe leaned against a
post and insolently ogled Madeline and then Florence. Don Carlos pressed
forward. His whole figure filled Madeline's reluctant but fascinated
eyes. He wore tight velveteen breeches, with a heavy fold down the
outside seam, which was ornamented with silver buttons. Round his waist
was a sash, and a belt with fringed holster, from which protruded a
pearl-handled gun. A vest or waistcoat, richly embroidered, partly
concealed a blouse of silk and wholly revealed a silken scarf round his
neck. His swarthy face showed dark lines, like cords, under the surface.
His little eyes were exceedingly prominent and glittering. To Madeline
his face seemed to be a bold, handsome mask through which his eyes
piercingly betrayed the evil nature of the man.

He bowed low with elaborate and sinuous grace. His smile revealed
brilliant teeth, enhanced the brilliance of his eyes. He slowly spread
deprecatory hands.

"Senoritas, I beg a thousand pardons," he said. How strange it was for
Madeline to hear English spoken in a soft, whiningly sweet accent! "The
gracious hospitality of Don Carlos has passed with his house."

Stewart stepped forward and, thrusting Don Carlos aside, he called,
"Make way, there!"

The crowd fell back to the tramp of heavy boots. Cowboys appeared
staggering out of the corridor with long boxes. These they placed side
by side upon the floor of the porch.

"Now, Hawe, we'll proceed with our business," said Stewart. "You see
these boxes, don't you?"

"I reckon I see a good many things round hyar," replied Hawe, meaningly.

"Well, do you intend to open these boxes upon my say-so?"

"No!" retorted Hawe. "It's not my place to meddle with property as come
by express an' all accounted fer regular."

"You call yourself a sheriff!" exclaimed Stewart, scornfully.

"Mebbe you'll think so before long," rejoined Hawe, sullenly.

"I'll open them. Here, one of you boys, knock the tops off these boxes,"
ordered Stewart. "No, not you, Monty. You use your eyes. Let Booly
handle the ax. Rustle, now!"

Monty Price had jumped out of the crowd into the middle of the porch.
The manner in which he gave way to Booly and faced the vaqueros was not
significant of friendliness or trust.

"Stewart, you're dead wrong to bust open them boxes. Thet's ag'in' the
law," protested Hawe, trying to interfere.

Stewart pushed him back. Then Don Carlos, who had been stunned by the
appearance of the boxes, suddenly became active in speech and person.
Stewart thrust him back also. The Mexican's excitement increased. He
wildly gesticulated; he exclaimed shrilly in Spanish. When, however, the
lids were wrenched open and an inside packing torn away he grew rigid
and silent. Madeline raised herself behind Stillwell to see that the
boxes were full of rifles and ammunition.

"There, Hawe! What did I tell you?" demanded Stewart. "I came over here
to take charge of this ranch. I found these boxes hidden in an unused
room. I suspected what they were. Contraband goods!"

"Wal, supposin' they are? I don't see any call fer sech all-fired fuss
as you're makin'. Stewart, I calkilate you're some stuck on your new job
an' want to make a big show before--"

"Hawe, stop slinging that kind of talk," interrupted Stewart. "You
got too free with your mouth once before! Now here, I'm supposed to
be consulting an officer of the law. Will you take charge of these
contraband goods?"

"Say, you're holdin' on high an' mighty," replied Hawe, in astonishment
that was plainly pretended. "What 're you drivin' at?"

Stewart muttered an imprecation. He took several swift strides across
the porch; he held out his hands to Stillwell as if to indicate the
hopelessness of intelligent and reasonable arbitration; he looked at
Madeline with a glance eloquent of his regret that he could not handle
the situation to please her. Then as he wheeled he came face to face
with Nels, who had slipped forward out of the crowd.

Madeline gathered serious import from the steel-blue meaning flash
of eyes whereby Nels communicated something to Stewart. Whatever that
something was, it dispelled Stewart's impatience. A slight movement of
his hand brought Monty Price forward with a jump. In these sudden jumps
of Monty's there was a suggestion of restrained ferocity. Then Nels
and Monty lined up behind Stewart. It was a deliberate action, even to
Madeline, unmistakably formidable. Pat Hawe's face took on an ugly look;
his eyes had a reddish gleam. Don Carlos added a pale face and extreme
nervousness to his former expressions of agitation. The cowboys edged
away from the vaqueros and the bronzed, bearded horsemen who were
evidently Hawe's assistants.

"I'm driving at this," spoke up Stewart, presently; and now he was slow
and caustic. "Here's contraband of war! Hawe, do you get that? Arms and
ammunition for the rebels across the border! I charge you as an officer
to confiscate these goods and to arrest the smuggler--Don Carlos."

These words of Stewart's precipitated a riot among Don Carlos and his
followers, and they surged wildly around the sheriff. There was an
upflinging of brown, clenching hands, a shrill, jabbering babel of
Mexican voices. The crowd around Don Carlos grew louder and denser
with the addition of armed vaqueros and barefooted stable-boys and
dusty-booted herdsmen and blanketed Mexicans, the last of whom suddenly
slipped from doors and windows and round comers. It was a motley
assemblage. The laced, fringed, ornamented vaqueros presented a sharp
contrast to the bare-legged, sandal-footed boys and the ragged herders.
Shrill cries, evidently from Don Carlos, somewhat quieted the commotion.
Then Don Carlos could be heard addressing Sheriff Hawe in an exhortation
of mingled English and Spanish. He denied, he avowed, he proclaimed,
and all in rapid, passionate utterance. He tossed his black hair in
his vehemence; he waved his fists and stamped the floor; he rolled
his glittering eyes; he twisted his thin lips into a hundred different
shapes, and like a cornered wolf showed snarling white teeth.

It seemed to Madeline that Don Carlos denied knowledge of the boxes of
contraband goods, then knowledge of their real contents, then knowledge
of their destination, and, finally, everything except that they were
there in sight, damning witnesses to somebody's complicity in the
breaking of neutrality laws. Passionate as had been his denial of all
this, it was as nothing compared to his denunciation of Stewart.

"Senor Stewart, he keel my Vaquero!" shouted Don Carlos, as, sweating
and spent, he concluded his arraignment of the cowboy. "Him you must
arrest! Senor Stewart a bad man! He keel my vaquero!"

"Do you hear thet?" yelled Hawe. "The Don's got you figgered fer thet
little job at El Cajon last fall."

The clamor burst into a roar. Hawe began shaking his finger in Stewart's
face and hoarsely shouting. Then a lithe young vaquero, swift as
an Indian, glided under Hawe's uplifted arm. Whatever the action he
intended, he was too late for its execution. Stewart lunged out,
struck the vaquero, and knocked him off the porch. As he fell a dagger
glittered in the sunlight and rolled clinking over the stones. The man
went down hard and did not move. With the same abrupt violence, and a
manner of contempt, Stewart threw Hawe off the porch, then Don Carlos,
who, being less supple, fell heavily. Then the mob backed before
Stewart's rush until all were down in the courtyard.

The shuffling of feet ceased, the clanking of spurs, and the shouting.
Nels and Monty, now reinforced by Nick Steele, were as shadows of
Stewart, so closely did they follow him. Stewart waved them back and
stepped down into the yard. He was absolutely fearless; but what struck
Madeline so keenly was his magnificent disdain. Manifestly, he knew the
nature of the men with whom he was dealing. From the look of him it was
natural for Madeline to expect them to give way before him, which they
did, even Hawe and his attendants sullenly retreating.

Don Carlos got up to confront Stewart. The prostrate vaquero stirred and
moaned, but did not rise.

"You needn't jibber Spanish to me," said Stewart. "You can talk
American, and you can understand American. If you start a rough-house
here you and your Greasers will be cleaned up. You've got to leave this
ranch. You can have the stock, the packs and traps in the second corral.
There's grub, too. Saddle up and hit the trail. Don Carlos, I'm dealing
more than square with you. You're lying about these boxes of guns and
cartridges. You're breaking the laws of my country, and you're doing
it on property in my charge. If I let smuggling go on here I'd be
implicated myself. Now you get off the range. If you don't I'll have the
United States cavalry here in six hours, and you can gamble they'll get
what my cowboys leave of you."

Don Carlos was either a capital actor and gratefully relieved at
Stewart's leniency or else he was thoroughly cowed by references to the
troops. "Si, Senor! Gracias, Senor!" he exclaimed; and then, turning
away, he called to his men. They hurried after him, while the fallen
vaquero got to his feet with Stewart's help and staggered across the
courtyard. In a moment they were gone, leaving Hawe and his several
comrades behind.

Hawe was spitefully ejecting a wad of tobacco from his mouth and
swearing in an undertone about "white-livered Greasers." He cocked his
red eye speculatively at Stewart.

"Wal, I reckon as you're so hell-bent on doin' it up brown thet you'll
try to fire me off'n the range, too?"

"If I ever do, Pat, you'll need to be carried off," replied Stewart.
"Just now I'm politely inviting you and your deputy sheriffs to leave."

"We'll go; but we're comin' back one of these days, an' when we do we'll
put you in irons."

"Hawe, if you've got it in that bad for me, come over here in the corral
and let's fight it out."

"I'm an officer, an' I don't fight outlaws an' sich except when I hev to
make arrests."

"Officer! You're a disgrace to the county. If you ever did get irons on
me you'd take me some place out of sight, shoot me, and then swear you
killed me in self-defense. It wouldn't be the first time you pulled that
trick, Pat Hawe."

"Ho, ho!" laughed Hawe, derisively. Then he started toward the horses.

Stewart's long arm shot out, his hand clapped on Hawe's shoulder,
spinning him round like a top.

"You're leaving, Pat, but before you leave you'll come out with your
play or you'll crawl," said Stewart. "You've got it in for me, man to
man. Speak up now and prove you're not the cowardly skunk I've always
thought you. I've called your hand."

Pat Hawe's face turned a blackish-purple hue.

"You can jest bet thet I've got it in fer you," he shouted, hoarsely.
"You're only a low-down cow-puncher. You never hed a dollar or a decent
job till you was mixed up with thet Hammond woman--"

Stewart's hand flashed out and hit Hawe's face in a ringing slap. The
sheriff's head jerked back, his sombrero fell to the ground. As he bent
over to reach it his hand shook, his arm shook, his whole body shook.

Monty Price jumped straight forward and crouched down with a strange,
low cry.

Stewart seemed all at once rigid, bending a little.

"Say Miss Hammond, if there's occasion to use her name," said Stewart,
in a voice that seemed coolly pleasant, yet had a deadly undernote.

Hawe did a moment's battle with strangling fury, which he conquered in
some measure.

"I said you was a low-down, drunken cow-puncher, a tough as damn near a
desperado as we ever hed on the border," went on Hawe, deliberately. His
speech appeared to be addressed to Stewart, although his flame-pointed
eyes were riveted upon Monty Price. "I know you plugged that vaquero
last fall, an' when I git my proof I'm comin' after you."

"That's all right, Hawe. You can call me what you like, and you can come
after me when you like," replied Stewart. "But you're going to get in
bad with me. You're in bad now with Monty and Nels. Pretty soon you'll
queer yourself with all the cowboys and the ranchers, too. If that don't
put sense into you--Here, listen to this. You knew what these boxes
contained. You know Don Carlos has been smuggling arms and ammunition
across the border. You know he is hand and glove with the rebels. You've
been wearing blinders, and it has been to your interest. Take a hunch
from me. That's all. Light out now, and the less we see of your handsome
mug the better we'll like you."

Muttering, cursing, pallid of face, Hawe climbed astride his horse.
His comrades followed suit. Certain it appeared that the sheriff
was contending with more than fear and wrath. He must have had an
irresistible impulse to fling more invective and threat upon Stewart,
but he was speechless. Savagely he spurred his horse, and as it snorted
and leaped he turned in his saddle, shaking his fist. His comrades led
the way, with their horses clattering into a canter. They disappeared
through the gate.

* * *

When, later in the day, Madeline and Florence, accompanied by Alfred and
Stillwell, left Don Carlos's ranch it was not any too soon for
Madeline. The inside of the Mexican's home was more unprepossessing and
uncomfortable than the outside. The halls were dark, the rooms huge,
empty, and musty; and there was an air of silence and secrecy and
mystery about them most fitting to the character Florence had bestowed
upon the place.

On the other hand, Alfred's ranch-house, where the party halted to spend
the night, was picturesquely located, small and cozy, camplike in its
arrangement, and altogether agreeable to Madeline.

The day's long rides and the exciting events had wearied her. She rested
while Florence and the two men got supper. During the meal Stillwell
expressed satisfaction over the good riddance of the vaqueros, and with
his usual optimism trusted he had seen the last of them. Alfred, too,
took a decidedly favorable view of the day's proceedings. However, it
was not lost upon Madeline that Florence appeared unusually quiet and
thoughtful. Madeline wondered a little at the cause. She remembered
that Stewart had wanted to come with them, or detail a few cowboys to
accompany them, but Alfred had laughed at the idea and would have none
of it.

After supper Alfred monopolized the conversation by describing what he
wanted to do to improve his home before he and Florence were married.

Then at an early hour they all retired.

Madeline's deep slumbers were disturbed by a pounding upon the wall, and
then by Florence's crying out in answer to a call:

"Get up! Throw some clothes on and come out!"

It was Alfred's voice.

"What's the matter?" asked Florence, as she slipped out of bed.

"Alfred, is there anything wrong?" added Madeline, sitting up.

The room was dark as pitch, but a faint glow seemed to mark the position
of the window.

"Oh, nothing much," replied Alfred. "Only Don Carlos's rancho going up
in smoke."

"Fire!" cried Florence, sharply.

"You'll think so when you see it. Hurry out. Majesty, old girl, now you
won't have to tear down that heap of adobe, as you threatened. I don't
believe a wall will stand after that fire."

"Well, I'm glad of it," said Madeline. "A good healthy fire will purify
the atmosphere over there and save me expense. Ugh! that haunted rancho
got on my nerves! Florence, I do believe you've appropriated part of my
riding-habit. Doesn't Alfred have lights in this house?"

Florence laughingly helped Madeline to dress. Then they hurriedly
stumbled over chairs, and, passing through the dining-room, went out
upon the porch.

Away to the westward, low down along the horizon, she saw leaping red
flames and wind-swept columns of smoke.

Stillwell appeared greatly perturbed.

"Al, I'm lookin' fer that ammunition to blow up," he said. "There was
enough of it to blow the roof off the rancho."

"Bill, surely the cowboys would get that stuff out the first thing,"
replied Alfred, anxiously.

"I reckon so. But all the same, I'm worryin'. Mebbe there wasn't time.
Supposin' thet powder went off as the boys was goin' fer it or carryin'
it out! We'll know soon. If the explosion doesn't come quick now we can
figger the boys got the boxes out."

For the next few moments there was a silence of sustained and painful
suspense. Florence gripped Madeline's arm. Madeline felt a fullness in
her throat and a rapid beating of her heart. Presently she was relieved
with the others when Stillwell declared the danger of an explosion
needed to be feared no longer.

"Sure you can gamble on Gene Stewart," he added.

The night happened to be partly cloudy, with broken rifts showing the
moon, and the wind blew unusually strong. The brightness of the fire
seemed subdued. It was like a huge bonfire smothered by some great
covering, penetrated by different, widely separated points of flame.
These corners of flame flew up, curling in the wind, and then died down.
Thus the scene was constantly changing from dull light to dark.
There came a moment when a blacker shade overspread the wide area of
flickering gleams and then obliterated them. Night enfolded the scene.
The moon peeped a curved yellow rim from under broken clouds. To all
appearances the fire had burned itself out. But suddenly a pinpoint of
light showed where all had been dense black. It grew and became long and
sharp. It moved. It had life. It leaped up. Its color warmed from white
to red. Then from all about it burst flame on flame, to leap into a
great changing pillar of fire that climbed high and higher. Huge funnels
of smoke, yellow, black, white, all tinged with the color of fire,
slanted skyward, drifting away on the wind.

"Wal, I reckon we won't hev the good of them two thousand tons of
alfalfa we was figgerin' on," remarked Stillwell.

"Ah! Then that last outbreak of fire was burning hay," said Madeline.
"I do not regret the rancho. But it's too bad to lose such a quantity of
good feed for the stock."

"It's lost, an' no mistake. The fire's dyin' as quick as she flared
up. Wal, I hope none of the boys got risky to save a saddle or blanket.
Monty--he's hell on runnin' the gantlet of fire. He's like a hoss that's
jest been dragged out of a burnin' stable an' runs back sure locoed.
There! She's smolderin' down now. Reckon we-all might jest as well turn
in again. It's only three o'clock."

"I wonder how the fire originated?" remarked Alfred. "Some careless
cowboy's cigarette, I'll bet."

Stillwell rolled out his laugh.

"Al, you sure are a free-hearted, trustin' feller. I'm some doubtin' the
cigarette idee; but you can gamble if it was a cigarette it belonged to
a cunnin' vaquero, an' wasn't dropped accident-like."

"Now, Bill, you don't mean Don Carlos burned the rancho?" ejaculated
Alfred, in mingled amaze and anger.

Again the old cattleman laughed.

"Powerful strange to say, my friend, ole Bill means jest thet."

"Of course Don Carlos set that fire," put in Florence, with spirit. "Al,
if you live out heah a hundred years you'll never learn that Greasers
are treacherous. I know Gene Stewart suspected something underhand.
That's why he wanted us to hurry away. That's why he put me on the black
horse of Don Carlos's. He wants that horse for himself, and feared the
Don would steal or shoot him. And you, Bill Stillwell, you're as bad as
Al. You never distrust anybody till it's too late. You've been singing
ever since Stewart ordered the vaqueros off the range. But you sure
haven't been thinking."

"Wal, now, Flo, you needn't pitch into me jest because I hev a natural
Christian spirit," replied Stillwell, much aggrieved. "I reckon I've
hed enough trouble in my life so's not to go lookin' fer more. Wal, I'm
sorry about the hay burnin'. But mebbe the boys saved the stock. An'
as fer that ole adobe house of dark holes an' under-ground passages, so
long's Miss Majesty doesn't mind, I'm darn glad it burned. Come, let's
all turn in again. Somebody'll ride over early an' tell us what's what."

Madeline awakened early, but not so early as the others, who were up and
had breakfast ready when she went into the dining-room. Stillwell was
not in an amiable frame of mind. The furrows of worry lined his broad
brow and he continually glanced at his watch, and growled because
the cowboys were so late in riding over with the news. He gulped his
breakfast, and while Madeline and the others ate theirs he tramped
up and down the porch. Madeline noted that Alfred grew nervous and
restless. Presently he left the table to join Stillwell outside.

"They'll slope off to Don Carlos's rancho and leave us to ride home
alone," observed Florence.

"Do you mind?" questioned Madeline.

"No, I don't exactly mind; we've got the fastest horses in this country.
I'd like to run that big black devil off his legs. No, I don't mind; but
I've no hankering for a situation Gene Stewart thinks--"

Florence began disconnectedly, and she ended evasively. Madeline did
not press the point, although she had some sense of misgiving. Stillwell
tramped in, shaking the floor with his huge boots; Alfred followed him,
carrying a field-glass.

"Not a hoss in sight," complained Stillwell. "Some-thin' wrong over Don
Carlos's way. Miss Majesty, it'll be jest as well fer you an' Flo to hit
the home trail. We can telephone over an' see that the boys know you're
comin'."

Alfred, standing in the door, swept the gray valley with his
field-glass.

"Bill, I see running stock-horses or cattle; I can't make out which. I
guess we'd better rustle over there."

Both men hurried out, and while the horses were being brought up and
saddled Madeline and Florence put away the breakfast-dishes, then
speedily donned spurs, sombreros, and gauntlets.

"Here are the horses ready," called Alfred. "Flo, that black Mexican
horse is a prince."

The girls went out in time to hear Stillwell's good-by as he mounted and
spurred away. Alfred went through the motions of assisting Madeline and
Florence to mount, which assistance they always flouted, and then he,
too, swung up astride.

"I guess it's all right," he said, rather dubiously. "You really must
not go over toward Don Carlos's. It's only a few miles home."

"Sure it's all right. We can ride, can't we?" retorted Florence. "Better
have a care for yourself, going off over there to mix in goodness knows
what."

Alfred said good-by, spurred his horse, and rode away.

"If Bill didn't forget to telephone!" exclaimed Florence. "I declare he
and Al were sure rattled."

Florence dismounted and went into the house. She left the door open.
Madeline had some difficulty in holding Majesty. It struck Madeline that
Florence stayed rather long indoors. Presently she came out with sober
face and rather tight lips.

"I couldn't get anybody on the 'phone. No answer. I tried a dozen
times."

"Why, Florence!" Madeline was more concerned by the girl's looks than by
the information she imparted.

"The wire's been cut," said Florence. Her gray glance swept swiftly
after Alfred, who was now far out of earshot. "I don't like this a
little bit. Heah's where I've got to 'figger,' as Bill says."

She pondered a moment, then hurried into the house, to return presently
with the field-glass that Alfred had used. With this she took a survey
of the valley, particularly in the direction of Madeline's ranch-house.
This was hidden by low, rolling ridges which were quite close by.

"Anyway, nobody in that direction can see us leave heah," she mused.
"There's mesquite on the ridges. We've got cover long enough to save us
till we can see what's ahead."

"Florence, what--what do you expect?" asked Madeline, nervously.

"I don't know. There's never any telling about Greasers. I wish Bill and
Al hadn't left us. Still, come to think of that, they couldn't help us
much in case of a chase. We'd run right away from them. Besides, they'd
shoot. I guess I'm as well as satisfied that we've got the job of
getting home on our own hands. We don't dare follow Al toward Don
Carlos's ranch. We know there's trouble over there. So all that's left
is to hit the trail for home. Come, let's ride. You stick like a Spanish
needle to me."

A heavy growth of mesquite covered the top of the first ridge, and the
trail went through it. Florence took the lead, proceeding cautiously,
and as soon as she could see over the summit she used the field-glass.
Then she went on. Madeline, following closely, saw down the slope of the
ridge to a bare, wide, grassy hollow, and onward to more rolling land,
thick with cactus and mesquite. Florence appeared cautious, deliberate,
yet she lost no time. She was ominously silent. Madeline's misgivings
took definite shape in the fear of vaqueros in ambush.

Upon the ascent of the third ridge, which Madeline remembered was the
last uneven ground between the point she had reached and home, Florence
exercised even more guarded care in advancing. Before she reached the
top of this ridge she dismounted, looped her bridle round a dead snag,
and, motioning Madeline to wait, she slipped ahead through the mesquite
out of sight. Madeline waited, anxiously listening and watching. Certain
it was that she could not see or hear anything alarming. The sun began
to have a touch of heat; the morning breeze rustled the thin mesquite
foliage; the deep magenta of a cactus flower caught her eye; a
long-tailed, cruel-beaked, brown bird sailed so close to her she could
have touched it with her whip. But she was only vaguely aware of these
things. She was watching for Florence, listening for some sound fraught
with untoward meaning. All of a sudden she saw Majesty's ears were held
straight up. Then Florence's face, now strangely white, showed round the
turn of the trail.

"'S-s-s-sh!" whispered Florence, holding up a warning finger. She
reached the black horse and petted him, evidently to still an uneasiness
he manifested. "We're in for it," she went on. "A whole bunch of
vaqueros hiding among the mesquite over the ridge! They've not seen or
heard us yet. We'd better risk riding ahead, cut off the trail, and beat
them to the ranch. Madeline, you're white as death! Don't faint now!"

"I shall not faint. But you frighten me. Is there danger? What shall we
do?"

"There's danger. Madeline, I wouldn't deceive you," went on Florence, in
an earnest whisper. "Things have turned out just as Gene Stewart hinted.
Oh, we should--Al should have listened to Gene! I believe--I'm afraid
Gene knew!"

"Knew what?" asked Madeline.

"Never mind now. Listen. We daren't take the back trail. We'll go
on. I've a scheme to fool that grinning Don Carlos. Get down,
Madeline--hurry."

Madeline dismounted.

"Give me your white sweater. Take it off--And that white hat! Hurry,
Madeline."

"Florence, what on earth do you mean?" cried Madeline.

"Not so loud," whispered the other. Her gray eyes snapped. She had
divested herself of sombrero and jacket, which she held out to Madeline.
"Heah. Take these. Give me yours. Then get up on the black. I'll ride
Majesty. Rustle now, Madeline. This is no time to talk."

"But, dear, why--why do you want--? Ah! You're going to make the
vaqueros take you for me!"

"You guessed it. Will you--"

"I shall not allow you to do anything of the kind," returned Madeline.

It was then that Florence's face, changing, took on the hard, stern
sharpness so typical of a cowboy's. Madeline had caught glimpses of that
expression in Alfred's face, and on Stewart's when he was silent, and
on Stillwell's always. It was a look of iron and fire--unchangeable,
unquenchable will. There was even much of violence in the swift action
whereby Florence compelled Madeline to the change of apparel.

"It 'd been my idea, anyhow, if Stewart hadn't told me to do it,"
said Florence, her words as swift as her hands. "Don Carlos is after
you--you, Miss Madeline Hammond! He wouldn't ambush a trail for any one
else. He's not killing cowboys these days. He wants you for some reason.
So Gene thought, and now I believe him. Well, we'll know for sure in
five minutes. You ride the black; I'll ride Majesty. We'll slip round
through the brush, out of sight and sound, till we can break out into
the open. Then we'll split. You make straight for the ranch. I'll cut
loose for the valley where Gene said positively the cowboys were with
the cattle. The vaqueros will take me for you. They all know those
striking white things you wear. They'll chase me. They'll never get
anywhere near me. And you'll be on a fast horse. He can take you home
ahead of any vaqueros. But you won't be chased. I'm staking all on that.
Trust me, Madeline. If it were only my calculation, maybe I'd--It's
because I remember Stewart. That cowboy knows things. Come, this heah's
the safest and smartest way to fool Don Carlos." Madeline felt herself
more forced than persuaded into acquiescence. She mounted the black and
took up the bridle. In another moment she was guiding her horse off
the trail in the tracks of Majesty. Florence led off at right angles,
threading a slow passage through the mesquite. She favored sandy patches
and open aisles between the trees, and was careful not to break a
branch. Often she stopped to listen. This detour of perhaps half a mile
brought Madeline to where she could see open ground, the ranch-house
only a few miles off, and the cattle dotting the valley. She had not
lost her courage, but it was certain that these familiar sights somewhat
lightened the pressure upon her breast. Excitement gripped her. The
shrill whistle of a horse made both the black and Majesty jump. Florence
quickened the gait down the slope. Soon Madeline saw the edge of the
brush, the gray-bleached grass and level ground.

Florence waited at the opening between the low trees. She gave Madeline
a quick, bright glance.

"All over but the ride! That'll sure be easy. Bolt now and keep your
nerve!"

When Florence wheeled the fiery roan and screamed in his ear Madeline
seemed suddenly to grow lax and helpless. The big horse leaped into
thundering action. This was memorable of Bonita of the flying hair and
the wild night ride. Florence's hair streamed on the wind and shone gold
in the sunlight. Yet Madeline saw her with the same thrill with which
she had seen the wild-riding Bonita. Then hoarse shouts unclamped
Madeline's power of movement, and she spurred the black into the open.

He wanted to run and he was swift. Madeline loosened the reins--laid
them loose upon his neck. His action was strange to her. He was hard
to ride. But he was fast, and she cared for nothing else. Madeline knew
horses well enough to realize that the black had found he was free and
carrying a light weight. A few times she took up the bridle and pulled
to right or left, trying to guide him. He kept a straight course,
however, and crashed through small patches of mesquite and jumped the
cracks and washes. Uneven ground offered no perceptible obstacle to his
running. To Madeline there was now a thrilling difference in the lash of
wind and the flash of the gray ground underneath. She was running away
from something; what that was she did not know. But she remembered
Florence, and she wanted to look back, yet hated to do so for fear of
the nameless danger Florence had mentioned.

Madeline listened for the pounding of pursuing hoofs in her rear.
Involuntarily she glanced back. On the mile or more of gray level
between her and the ridge there was not a horse, a man, or anything
living. She wheeled to look back on the other side, down the valley
slope.

The sight of Florence riding Majesty in zigzag flight before a whole
troop of vaqueros blanched Madeline's cheek and made her grip the pommel
of her saddle in terror. That strange gait of her roan was not his
wonderful stride. Could Majesty be running wild? Madeline saw one
vaquero draw closer, whirling his lasso round his head, but he did not
get near enough to throw. So it seemed to Madeline. Another vaquero
swept across in front of the first one. Then, when Madeline gasped in
breathless expectancy, the roan swerved to elude the attack. It flashed
over Madeline that Florence was putting the horse to some such awkward
flight as might have been expected of an Eastern girl frightened out of
her wits. Madeline made sure of this when, after looking again, she saw
that Florence, in spite of the horse's breaking gait and the irregular
course, was drawing slowly and surely down the valley.

Madeline had not lost her head to the extent of forgetting her own mount
and the nature of the ground in front. When, presently, she turned again
to watch Florence, uncertainty ceased in her mind. The strange features
of that race between girl and vaqueros were no longer in evidence.
Majesty was in his beautiful, wonderful stride, low down along the
ground, stretching, with his nose level and straight for the valley.
Between him and the lean horses in pursuit lay an ever-increasing space.
He was running away from the vaqueros. Florence was indeed "riding the
wind," as Stewart had aptly expressed his idea of flight upon the fleet
roan.

A dimness came over Madeline's eyes, and it was not all owing to the
sting of the wind. She rubbed it away, seeing Florence as a flying
dot in a strange blur. What a daring, intrepid girl! This kind of
strength--and aye, splendid thought for a weaker sister--was what the
West inculcated in a woman.

The next time Madeline looked back Florence was far ahead of her
pursuers and going out of sight behind a low knoll. Assured of
Florence's safety, Madeline put her mind to her own ride and the
possibilities awaiting at the ranch. She remembered the failure to
get any of her servants or cowboys on the telephone. To be sure, a
wind-storm had once broken the wire. But she had little real hope of
such being the case in this instance. She rode on, pulling the black as
she neared the ranch. Her approach was from the south and off the usual
trail, so that she went up the long slope of the knoll toward the back
of the house. Under these circumstances she could not consider it out of
the ordinary that she did not see any one about the grounds.

It was perhaps fortunate for her, she thought, that the climb up the
slope cut the black's speed so she could manage him. He was not very
hard to stop. The moment she dismounted, however, he jumped and trotted
off. At the edge of the slope, facing the corrals, he halted to lift
his head and shoot up his ears. Then he let out a piercing whistle and
dashed down the lane.

Madeline, prepared by that warning whistle, tried to fortify herself for
a new and unexpected situation; but as she espied an unfamiliar company
of horsemen rapidly riding down a hollow leading from the foothills she
felt the return of fears gripping at her like cold hands, and she fled
precipitously into the house.





Next: A Band Of Guerrillas

Previous: The New Foreman



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