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Superstitions And Certainties








From: Heart Of The Sunset

The sensation caused by Ricardo Guzman's disappearance was as
nothing to that which followed the recovery of his body. By the
next afternoon it was known from Mexico to the Canadian border
that the old ranchman had been shot by Mexican soldiers in Romero.
It was reported that a party of Americans had invaded foreign soil
and snatched Ricardo's remains from under the nose of General
Longorio. But there all reliable information ceased. Just how the
rescue had been effected, by whom it had been done, what reasons
had prompted it, were a mystery. With the first story the
newspapers printed a terse telegram, signed by Captain Evans and
addressed to the Governor of Texas, which read:

"Ranger force crossed Rio Grande and brought back the body of
Ricardo Guzman."

This message created tremendous enthusiasm, for the Texas Rangers
have ever stood for prompt and decisive action; but two hours
after the publication of this despatch there came a sharp inquiry
from Washington, and on the heels of that the State House at
Austin denied the receipt of any such message.

When this denial was in turn made public, the newspapers demanded
to know who had performed this sensational exploit. One rumor had
it that the sons of Ricardo Guzman had risked their lives to
insure their father Christian burial. This was amplified by a
touching pen-picture of the rancher's weeping family waiting at
the bank of the Rio Grande, and an affecting account of the grief
of the beautiful Guzman girls. It mattered not that there were no
daughters.

In other quarters the expedition was credited to members of a
secret order to which Ricardo had belonged; from a third source
came a statement that the Guzman family had hired a band of
Mexicans to exhume the body, so that proof of death might be
sufficient to satisfy an insurance company in which the rancher
had held a policy. Even at Jonesville there were conflicting
rumors.

But, whatever the facts of the rescue, it was generally recognized
that the result had been to bring on a crisis in the affairs of
the two nations. People declared that since the outrage was now
proven the next move was the duty of the State Department at
Washington. Therefore, when several days passed and nothing was
done, a wide-spread feeling of indignation grew. What mattered
these diplomatic communications between the two governments? it
was asked. Why wait for another investigation by General Longorio?

Strong influences, however, were at work to prevent that very
outcome for which the people of Texas prayed. During the delay
there arose a report that Ricardo Guzman had borne an evil
reputation, and that he had been so actively associated with the
Rebel cause as to warrant punishment by the Federal government.
Moreover, a legal question as to his American citizenship was
raised--a question which seemed to have important bearing upon the
case.

Public interest is short-lived; few living men can hold it more
than a day or two, and it reckons no dead man worthy of more than
an obituary notice. Other Mexican offenses, equally grave, had
failed to stir the Administration to definite action; the death of
this obscure border ranchman did not seem to weigh very heavily in
Washington. Thus in the course of time the Guzman incident was in
a fair way of being officially forgotten and forgiven.

Of course the people of Texas did not forget, nor did those who
had personally known Ricardo forgive. Dave Law, for instance, felt
bitter over the matter, for he had counted upon prompt and
definite results. A little pressure, properly applied, would have
wrung the truth from Colonel Blanco and fastened some measure of
guilt upon the men who had actually arranged the murder. Dave did
not doubt Tad Lewis's part in it, but there was only one source
from which pressure could be brought, and when this failed he
found his further efforts blocked. There remained to him only the
consolation of knowing that he had in a measure squared his
account with old Ricardo.

But there were several persons who felt intense relief at the
course events had taken, and among these was Alaire Austin. In the
days following that midnight expedition she had had ample time in
which to meditate upon her husband's actions, "Young Ed" had taken
advantage of the confusion to slip out of the crowd and escape in
his roadster, and when Alaire arrived at Las Palmas she had found
that he was gone, leaving behind no word as to when he would
return. It seemed probable that he had fled to San Antonio, there
to remain until interest in the Guzman matter had abated. If Ed
was relieved to escape the immediate consequences of his
connection with the affair, his wife was no less thankful for his
absence, since it left her free to think and to plan. Their
relations were becoming constantly more difficult; she realized
that it was impossible for her to go on in this way much longer.
Before leaving Ed had again rifled the safe, thus disregarding for
a second time his explicit agreement with his wife. Of course, he
was welcome to whatever money he needed, even in excess of his
allowance; but his act showed his weak sense of honor and
strengthened Alaire's conviction that he was in every way rapidly
deteriorating. As yet she could not believe him really wicked at
heart--he had many qualities which were above the average--nor
could she convince herself that he had been criminally involved in
Tad Lewis's schemes. And yet, what other explanation could there
be? Ed's behavior had been extraordinary; his evident terror at
news of Dave Law's expedition, his conversation with Tad Lewis
over the telephone, his subsequent actions at the river, all
seemed to indicate that he had some vital interest in maintaining
the mystery of Guzman's death. What could it be?

Suspicions like these were extremely disturbing. In spite of
herself Alaire began to think more seriously about that separation
which Ed had so frequently offered her. Her whole nature, it is
true, recoiled at the thought of divorce; it was a thing utterly
repugnant to her sentiment and her creed--a thing that stood for
notoriety, gossip, scandal. Deep in her heart she felt that
divorce was wicked, for marriage to her had always meant a sacred
and unbreakable bond. And yet there seemed to be no alternative.
She wished Ed would go away--leave her quietly and for ever, so
that she might live out her empty life in seclusion--but that, of
course, he would never do.

Such longings were not strangers to Alaire; they were old and
persistent enemies; but of late the prospect of a loveless,
childless future was growing more and more unbearable. Even her
day dreams failed to give their customary relief; those imaginary
figures with whom she took counsel were strangely unresponsive.

She had told Paloma Jones about her dream-children, but she had
not confessed the existence of another and a far more intimate
creature of her brain--one who occupied the place Ed Austin should
have held. There was such a person, however, and Alaire called him
her dream husband. Now this man's physical aspect was never long
the same; it altered according to her changing ideals or to the
impression left by new acquaintances; nevertheless, he was in some
ways the most real and the most tangible of all her pale romantic
fancies. No one who has watched a solitary child at play can doubt
that it sees and hears playmates invisible to others. Alaire
Austin, in the remotest depths of her being, was still a child. Of
late her prince had assumed new characteristics and a new form. He
was no longer any one of the many shapes he had been; he was more
like the spirit of the out-of-doors--a strong-limbed, deep-
chested, sun-bronzed creature, with a strain of gipsy blood that
called to hers. He was moody, yet tender, roughly masculine, and
yet possessed of the gentleness and poetry of a girl. He was
violent tempered; he was brave; he rode a magnificent bay mare
that worshiped him, as did all animals.

During one of these introspective periods Alaire telephoned Dave
Law, arguing to herself that she must learn more about her
husband's connection with the Lewis gang. Dave arrived even sooner
than she had expected. She made him dine with her, and they spent
the evening on the dim-lit gallery. In the course of their
conversation Alaire discovered that Dave, too, had a hidden side
of his nature; that he possessed an imagination, and with it a
quaint, whimsical, exploratory turn of mind which enabled him to
talk interestingly of many things and many places. On this
particular evening he was anything but the man of iron she had
known--until she ventured to speak of Ed. Then he closed up like a
trap. He was almost gruff in his refusal to say a word about her
husband.

Because of Ed's appropriation of the ranch cash, Alaire found it
necessary a few days later to go to the bank, and, feeling the
need of exercise, she rode her horse Montrose. When her errands
had been attended to, she suddenly decided to call on Paloma
Jones. It was years since she had voluntarily done such a thing;
the very impulse surprised her.

Paloma, it happened, was undergoing that peculiar form of feminine
torture known as a "fitting"; but insecurely basted, pinned, and
tucked as she was, she came flying down to the gate to meet her
visitor.

Alaire was introduced to Mrs. Strange, the dressmaker, a large,
acidulous brunette, with a mouthful of pins; and then, when Paloma
had given herself once more into the seamstress's hands, the two
friends gossiped.

Since Mrs. Strange was the first capable dressmaker who had ever
come to Jonesville, Paloma had closed her eyes and plunged with
reckless extravagance. Now the girl insisted upon a general
exhibition of her new wardrobe, a sort of grand fashion review,
for the edification of her caller, in the course of which she
tried on all her dresses.

Paloma was petite and well proportioned, and the gowns were
altogether charming. Alaire was honest in her praise, and Paloma's
response was one of whole-hearted pleasure. The girl beamed. Never
before had she been so admired, never until this moment had she
adored a person as she adored Mrs. Austin, whose every suggestion
as to fit and style was acted upon, regardless of Mrs. Strange.

"I don't know what Dad will say when he gets the bill for these
dresses," Paloma confessed.

"Your father is a mighty queer man," Mrs. Strange observed. "I
haven't so much as laid eyes on him."

Paloma nodded. "Yes. And he's getting more peculiar all the time;
I can't make out what ails him."

"Where is he now?" asked Alaire.

"Heaven knows! Out in the barn or under the house." Taking
advantage of the dressmaker's momentary absence from the room,
Paloma continued in a whisper: "I wish you'd talk to Dad and see
what you make of him. He's absolutely--queer. Mrs. Strange seems
to have a peculiar effect on him. Why, it's almost as if--"

"What?"

"Well, I suppose I'm foolish, but--I'm beginning to believe in
spells. You know, Mrs. Strange's husband is a sort of--
necromancer."

"How silly!"

There was no further opportunity for words, as the woman
reappeared at that instant; but a little later Alaire went in
search of Blaze, still considerably mystified. As she neared the
farm buildings she glimpsed a man's figure hastily disappearing
into the barn. The figure bore a suspicious resemblance to Blaze
Jones, yet when she followed he was nowhere to be seen. Now this
was curious, for Texas barns are less pretentious than those of
the North, and this one was little more than a carriage-house and
a shelter for agricultural implements.

"Mr. Jones!" Alaire called. She repeated Blaze's name several
times; then something stirred. The door of a harness closet opened
cautiously, and out of the blackness peered Paloma's father. He
looked more owlish than ever behind his big, gold-rimmed
spectacles. "What in the world are you doing in there?" she cried.

Blaze emerged, blinking. He was dusty and perspiring.

"Hello, Miz Austin!" he saluted her with a poor assumption of
breeziness. "I was fixin' some harness, but I'm right glad to see
you."

Alaire regarded him quizzically. "What made you hide?" she asked.

"Hide? Who, me?"

"I saw you dodge in here like a--gopher."

Blaze confessed. "I reckon I've got the willies. Every woman I see
looks like that dam' dressmaker."

"Paloma was telling me about you. Why do you hate her so?"

"I don't know's I hate her, but her and her husband have put a
jinx on me. They're the worst people I ever see, Miz Austin."

"You don't really believe in such things?"

Blaze dusted off a seat for his visitor, saying: "I never did till
lately, but now I'm worse than a plantation nigger. I tell you
there's things in this world we don't sabe. I wish you'd get
Paloma to fire her. I've tried and failed. I wish you'd tell her
those dresses are rotten."

"But they're very nice; they're lovely; and I've just been
complimenting her. Now what has this woman done to you?"

It seemed impossible that a man of Blaze Jones's character could
actually harbor crude superstitions, and yet there was no
mistaking his earnestness when he said:

"I ain't sure whether she's to blame, or her husband, but
misfortune has folded me to herself."

"How?"

"Well, I'm sick."

"You don't look it."

"I don't exactly feel it, either, but I am. I don't sleep good, my
heart's actin' up, I've got rheumatism, my stomach feels like I'd
swallowed something alive--"

"You're smoking too much," Alaire affirmed, with conviction.

But skepticism aroused Blaze's indignation. With elaborate sarcasm
he retorted: "I reckon that's why my best team of mules run away
and dragged me through a ten-acre patch of grass burrs--on my
belly, eh? It's a wonder I wasn't killed. I reckon I smoked so
much that I give a tobacco heart to the best three-year-old bull
in my pasture! Well, I smoked him to death, all right. Probably it
was nicotine poisonin' that killed twenty acres of my cotton, too;
and maybe if I'd cut out Bull Durham I'd have floated that bond
issue on the irrigation ditch. But I was wedded to cigarettes, so
my banks are closin' down on me. Sure! That's what a man gets for
smokin'."

"And do you attribute all these misfortunes to Paloma's
dressmaker?"

The man nodded gloomily. "That ain't half! Everything goes wrong.
I'm scared to pack a weapon for fear I'll injure myself. Why, I've
carried a bowie-knife in my bootleg ever since I was a babe in
arms, you might say; but the other day I jabbed myself with it and
nearly got blood-poisonin'. The very first time I ever laid eyes
on this man and his wife a great misfortune overtook me, and ever
since they come to Jonesville I've had a close squeeze to make a
live of it. This fellow Strange, with his fortune-tellin' and his
charms and his conjures, has hocus-pocussed the whole
neighborhood. He's gettin' rich off of the Mexicans. He knows more
secrets than a priest; he tells 'em whether their sweethearts love
'em, whether a child is goin' to be a boy or a girl, and how to
invest their money."

"He is nothing more than a circus fakir, Mr. Jones."

"Yes'm! Just the same, these Greasers'd vote him into the
legislature if he asked 'em. Why, he knows who fetched back
Ricardo Guzman's body! He told me so."

"Really?" Alaire looked up quickly, then the smile left her face.
After a moment she said, "Perhaps he could tell me something that
I want to know?"

"Now don't you get him started," Blaze cautioned, hastily, "or
he'll put a spell on you like he did on me."

"I want to know what Ed had to do with the Guzman affair."

Blaze shook his head slowly. "Well, he's mixed up somehow with
Lewis. Dave thinks Tad was at the bottom of the killin', and he
hoped to prove it on him; but our government won't do anything,
and he's stumped for the time bein'. I don't know any more about
Ed's dealin's than you do, Miz Austin: all I know is that I got a
serpent in my household and I can't get shed of her. I've got a
lapful of troubles of my own. I've ordered Paloma to let that
woman go, but, pshaw! It's like a bowlegged man drivin' a shoat--
there ain't any headin' Paloma off when her mind's made up. You
mark what I say, that female spider'll sew venom into those
dresses. I never seen a woman with a mustache that was any good.
Look here!" Blaze drew a well-thumbed pack of playing-cards from
his pocket. "Shuffle 'em, and I'll prove what I say. If I don't
turn up a dark woman three times out of five I'll eat that saddle-
blanket, dry."

Alaire shuffled the deck, and Blaze cut the cards. Sure enough, he
exposed the queen of spades.

"What did I tell you? There's the bearded lady herself! Now I'll
shuffle and you cut."

Alaire smilingly followed directions; she separated the deck into
three piles, after which Jones interpreted the oracle.

"You got a good fortune, Miz Austin. There's a light man comin' to
your house, danger, and--marriage. You're goin' to marry a light
man."

Alaire's laughter rang out unaffectedly. "Now you see how utterly
absurd it is."

"Maybe it is, and maybe it ain't." From another pocket Jones drew
a small volume entitled The Combination Fortune-Teller and
Complete Dictionary of Dreams. Alaire reached to take it, and the
book dropped to the floor; then, as she stooped, Blaze cried:
"Wait! Hit it three times on the floor and say, 'Money! Money!
Money!'"

As Alaire was running over the pages of the book, one of Blaze's
ranch-hands appeared in the door to ask him a question. When the
fellow had gone his employer rose and tiptoed after him; then he
spat through his crossed fingers in the direction the man had
taken.

"Now what does that mean?" Alaire inquired.

"Didn't you see? He's cross-eyed."

"This is too occult for me," she declared, rising. "But--I'm
interested in what you say about Mr. Strange. If the Mexicans tell
him so much, perhaps he can tell me something. I do hope you have
no more misfortunes."

"You stay to supper," Blaze urged, hospitably. "I'll be in as soon
as that tarantula's gone."

But Alaire declined. After a brief chat with Paloma she remounted
Montrose and prepared for the homeward ride. At the gate, however,
she met Dave Law on his new mare, and when Dave had learned the
object of her visit to Jonesville he insisted upon accompanying
her.

"You have enough money in those saddle-bags to tempt some of our
very best citizens," he told her. "If you don't mind, I'll just be
your bodyguard."

"Very well," she smiled; "but to make perfectly sure of our
safety, cross your fingers and spit."

"Eh?" Seeing the amusement in her eyes, he declared: "You've been
talking to Blaze. Well, last night I dreamed I was eating
chestnuts, and he told me I was due for a great good fortune. You
see, there's something in it, after all."

"And you must be the 'light man' I discovered in the cards. Blaze
declared you were coming to my house." They jogged along side by
side, and Law thanked his lucky stars for the encounter.

"Did Blaze tell you how he came to meet the Stranges?"

"No. He only said they had brought him bad luck from the start."

Dave grinned; then, in treacherous disregard of his promise to
Jones, he recounted the tale of that disastrous defeat on the
beach at Galveston. When he had finished the story, which he
ingeniously elaborated, Alaire was doubled over her saddle. It was
the first spontaneous laugh she had had for days, and it seemed to
banish her worries magically. Alaire was not of a melancholy
temperament; gaiety was natural to her, and it had required many
heartaches, many disappointments, to darken her blithe spirit.

Nor was Dave Law a person of the comic type; yet he was a gloom-
dispeller, and now that Alaire was beginning to know him better
she felt a certain happy restfulness in his company.

The ride was long, and the two proceeded leisurely, stopping now
and then to talk or to admire the banks of wild flowers beside the
road. No country is richer in spring blooms than is South Texas.
The cactus had nearly done blooming now, and its ever-listening
ears were absurdly warted with fruit; gorgeous carpets of
bluebonnets were spread beside the ditches, while the air above
was filled with thousands of yellow butterflies, like whirling,
wind-blown petals of the prickly-pear blossom. Montrose and
Montrosa enjoyed the journey also; it was just the mode of
traveling to please equine hearts, for there were plenty of
opportunities to nibble at the juicy grass and to drink at the
little pools. Then, too, there were mad, romping races during
which the riders laughed and shouted.

It was Law who finally discovered that they had somehow taken the
wrong road. The fact that Alaire had failed to notice this gave
him a sudden thrill. It aroused in his mind such a train of dizzy,
drunken speculations that for some time following the discovery he
jogged silently at his companion's side.

It was early dusk when they reached Las Palmas; it was nearly
midnight when Dave threw his leg across his saddle and started
home.

Alaire's parting words rang sweetly in his ears: "This has been
the pleasantest day I can remember."

The words themselves meant little, but Dave had caught a wistful
undertone in the speaker's voice, and fancied he had seen in her
eyes a queer, half-frightened expression, as of one just awakened.

Jose Sanchez had beheld Dave Law at the Las Palmas table twice
within a few days. He spent this evening laboriously composing a
letter to his friend and patron, General Luis Longorio.





Next: An Awakening

Previous: Rangers



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