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The Ambush








From: Heart Of The Sunset

Alaire Austin slept badly. The day's hardships had left their
traces. The toxins of fatigue not only poisoned her muscles with
aches and pains, but drugged her brain and rendered the night a
long succession of tortures during which she experienced for a
second time the agonies of thirst and fatigue and despair. Extreme
physical ordeals, like profound emotional upheavals, leave
imprints upon the brain, and while the body may recover quickly,
it often requires considerable time to rest exhausted nerves. The
finer the nervous organism, the slower is the process of
recuperation. Like most normal women, Alaire had a surprising
amount of endurance, both nervous and muscular, but, having drawn
heavily against her reserve force, she paid the penalty. During
the early hours of the night she slept hardly at all, and as soon
as her bodily discomfort began to decrease her mind became unruly.
Twice she rose and limped to the water-hole for a drink, and it
was not until nearly dawn that she dropped off into complete
unconsciousness. She was awakened by a sunbeam which pierced her
leafy shelter and with hot touch explored her upturned face.

It was still early; the sun had just cleared the valley's rim and
the ground was damp with dew. Somewhere near by an unfamiliar bird
was sweetly trilling. Alaire listened dreamily until the bird-
carol changed to the air of a familiar cowboy song, then she sat
up, queerly startled.

David Law was watering his horse, grooming the animal meanwhile
with a burlap doth. Such attention was unusual in a stock country
where horses run wild, but this horse, Mrs. Austin saw, justified
unusual care. It was a beautiful blood-bay mare, and as the woman
looked it lifted its head, then with wet, trembling muzzle
caressed its owner's cheek. Undoubtedly this attention was meant
for a kiss, and was as daintily conferred as any woman's favor. It
brought a reward in a lump of sugar. There followed an exhibition
of equine delight; the mare's lips twitched, her nose wrinkled
ludicrously, she stretched her neck and tossed her head as the
sweetness tickled her palate. Even the nervous switching of her
tail was eloquent of pleasure. Meanwhile the owner showed his
white teeth in a smile.

"Good morning," said Mrs. Austin.

Law lifted his hat in a graceful salute as he approached around
the edge of the pool, his spurs jingling musically. The mare
followed.

"You have a fine horse, there."

"Yes'm. Her and me get along all right. I hope we didn't wake you,
ma'am."

"No. I was too tired to sleep well."

"Of course. I heard you stirring about during the night." Law
paused, and the mare, with sharp ears cocked forward, looked over
his shoulder inquisitively. "Tell the lady good morning, Bessie
Belle," he directed. The animal flung its head high, then stepped
forward and, stretching its neck, sniffed doubtfully at the
visitor.

"What a graceful bow!" Mrs. Austin laughed. "You taught her that,
I presume."

"Yes'm! She'd never been to school when I got her; she was plumb
ignorant. But she's got all the airs of a fine lady now. Sometimes
I go without sugar, but Bessie Belle never does."

"And you with a sweet tooth!"

The Ranger smiled pleasantly. "She's as easy as a rockin'-chair.
We're kind of sweethearts. Ain't we, kid?" Again Bessie Belle
tossed her head high. "That's 'yes,' with the reverse English,"
the speaker explained. "Now you just rest yourself, ma'am, and
order your breakfast. What 'll it be--quail, dove, or cottontail?"

"Why--whatever you can get."

"That ain't the kind of restaurant we run. Bessie Belle would sure
be offended if she understood you. Ever see anybody call a quail?"

"Can it really be done?"

Law's face brightened. "You wait." He led his mare down the
arroyo, then returned, and, taking his Winchester from its
scabbard, explained: "There's a pair of 'top-knots' on that side-
hill waitin' for a drink. Watch 'em run into my lap when I give
the distress signal of our secret order." He skirted the water-
hole, and seated himself with his heels together and his elbows
propped upon his spread knees in the military position for close
shooting. From where he sat he commanded an unobstructed view of
the thicket's edge. Next he moistened his lips and uttered an
indescribable low whistle. At intervals he repeated the call,
while the woman looked on with interest. Suddenly out of the grass
burst a blue quail, running with wings outstretched and every
feather ruffled angrily. It paused, the man's cheeks snuggled
against the stock of his gun, and the bark of the thirty-thirty
sounded loudly. Mrs. Austin saw that he had shot the little bird's
head off. She spoke, but he stilled her with a gesture, threw in a
second shell, and repeated his magic call. There was a longer wait
this time, but finally the performance was repeated. The marksman
rose, picked up the two birds, and came back to the camping-place.

"Kind of a low-down trick when they've just started housekeeping,
ain't it?" he smiled.

Mrs. Austin saw that both crested heads had been cleanly severed.
"That is quite wonderful" she said. "You must be an unusually good
shot."

"Yes'm. You can fool turkeys the same way. Turkeys are easy."

"What do you say to them? What brings them out, all ruffled up?"
she asked, curiously.

Law had one of the birds picked by this time. "I tell 'em a snake
has got me. I reckon each one thinks the other is in trouble and
comes to the rescue. Anyhow, it's a mighty mean trick."

He would not permit her to help with the breakfast, so she lay
back enjoying the luxury of her hard bed and watching her host,
whose personality, now that she saw him by daylight, had begun to
challenge her interest. Of late years she had purposely avoided
men, and circumstances had not permitted her to study those few
she had been forced to meet; but now that fate had thrown her into
the company of this stranger, she permitted some play to her
curiosity.

Physically Law was of an admirable make--considerably over six
feet in height, with wide shoulders and lean, strong limbs.
Although his face was schooled to mask all but the keenest
emotions, the deftness of his movements was eloquent, betraying
that complete muscular and nervous control which comes from life
in the open. A pair of blue-gray, meditative eyes, with a
whimsical fashion of wrinkling half-shut when he talked, relieved
a countenance that otherwise would have been a trifle grim and
somber. The nose was prominent and boldly arched, the ears large
and pronounced and standing well away from the head; the mouth was
thin-lipped and mobile. Alaire tried to read that bronzed visage,
with little success until she closed her eyes and regarded the
mental image. Then she found the answer: Law had the face and the
head of a hunter. The alert ears, the watchful eyes, the predatory
nose were like those of some hunting animal. Yes, that was
decidedly the strongest impression he gave. And yet in his face
there was nothing animal in a bad sense. Certainly it showed no
grossness. The man was wild, untamed, rather than sensual, and
despite his careless use of the plains vernacular he seemed to be
rather above the average in education and intelligence. At any
rate, without being stupidly tongue-tied, he knew enough to remain
silent when there was nothing to say, and that was a blessing, for
Mrs. Austin herself was not talkative, and idle chatter distressed
her.

On the whole, when Alaire had finished her analysis she rather
resented the good impression Law had made upon her, for on general
principles she chose to dislike and distrust men. Rising, she
walked painfully to the pond and made a leisurely toilet.

Breakfast was ready when she returned, and once more the man sat
upon his heels and smoked while she ate. Alaire could not catch
his eyes upon her, except when he spoke, at which time his gaze
was direct and open; yet never did she feel free from his
intensest observation.

After a while she remarked: "I'm glad to see a Ranger in this
county. There has been a lot of stealing down our way, and the
Association men can't seem to stop it. Perhaps you can."

"The Rangers have a reputation in that line," he admitted. "But
there is stealing all up and down the border, since the war. You
lost any stuff?"

"Yes. Mostly horses."

"Sure! They need horses in Mexico."

"The ranchers have organized. They have formed a sort of vigilance
committee in each town, and talk of using bloodhounds."

"Bloodhounds ain't any good, outside of novels. If beef got
scarce, them Greasers would steal the dogs and eat 'em." He added,
meditatively, "Dog ain't such bad eatin', either."

"Have you tried it?"

Mr. Law nodded. "It was better than some of the army beef we got
in the Philippines." Then, in answer to her unspoken inquiry,
"Yes'm, I served an enlistment there."

"You--were a private soldier?"

"Yes'm."

Mrs. Austin was incredulous, and yet she could not well express
her surprise without too personal an implication. "I can't imagine
anybody--that is, a man like you, as a common soldier."

"Well, I wasn't exactly that," he grinned. "No, I was about the
most UNcommon soldier out there. I had a speakin' acquaintance
with most of the guard-houses in the islands before I got
through."

"But why did you enlist--a man like you?"

"Why?" He pondered the question. "I was young. I guess I needed
the excitement. I have to get about so much or I don't enjoy my
food."

"Did you join the Maderistas for excitement?"

"Mostly. Then, too, I believed Panchito Madero was honest and
would give the peons land. An honest Mexican is worth fightin'
for, anywhere. The pelados are still struggling for their land--
for that and a chance to live and work and be happy."

Mrs. Austin stirred impatiently. "They are fighting because they
are told to fight. There is no PATRIOTISM in them," said she.

"I think," he said, with grave deliberateness, "the majority feel
something big and vague and powerful stirring inside them. They
don't know exactly what it is, perhaps, but it is there. Mexico
has outgrown her dictators. They have been overthrown by the same
causes that brought on the French Revolution."

"The French Revolution!" Alaire leaned forward, eying the speaker
with startled intensity. "You don't talk like a--like an enlisted
man. What do you know about the French Revolution?"

Reaching for a coal, the Ranger spoke without facing her. "I've
read a good bit, ma'am, and I'm a noble listener. I remember good,
too. Why, I had a picture of the Bastille once." He pronounced it
"Bastilly," and his hearer settled back. "That was some calaboose,
now, wasn't it?" A moment later he inquired, ingenuously, "I don't
suppose you ever saw that Bastille, did you?"

"No. Only the place where it stood."

"Sho! You must have traveled right smart for such a young lady."
He beamed amiably upon her.

"I was educated abroad, and I only came home--to be married."

Law noted the lifeless way in which she spoke, and he understood.
"I'll bet you hablar those French and German lingoes like a
native," he ventured. "Beats me how a person can do it."

"You speak Spanish, don't you?"

"Oh yes. But I was born in Mexico, as near as I can make out."

"And you probably speak some of the Filipino dialects?"

"Yes'm, a few."

There was something winning about this young man's modesty, and
something flattering in his respectful admiration. He seemed,
also, to know his place, a fact which was even more in his favor.
Undoubtedly he had force and ability; probably his love of
adventure and a happy lack of settled purpose had led him to
neglect his more commonplace opportunities and sent him first into
the army and thence into the Ranger service. The world is full of
such, and the frontier is their gathering-place. Mrs. Austin had
met a number of men like Law, and to her they seemed to be the
true soldiers of fortune--fellows who lived purely for the fun of
living, and leavened their days with adventure. They were buoyant
souls, for the most part, drifting with the tide, resentful of
authority and free from care; meeting each day with enthusiastic
expectancy for what it held in store. They were restless and
improvident; the world counted them ne'er-do-wells, and yet she
knew that at least their hours were full and that their names--
some of them--were written large in the distant places. Alaire
Austin often told herself that, had she been born a man, such a
life as this might have been hers, and she took pleasure in
dreaming sometimes of the experience that fate, in such a case,
would have brought to her.

Being a woman, however, and being animated at this particular
moment by a peculiarly feminine impulse, she felt urged to add her
own touch to what nature had roughed out. This man had been denied
what she termed an education; therefore she decided to put one in
his way.

"Do you like to read?" she asked him.

"Say! It's my favorite form of exercise." Law's blue-gray eyes
were expressionless, his face was bland. "Why?"

"I have a great many books at Las Palmas. You might enjoy some of
them."

"Now that's nice of you, ma'am. Mebbe I'll look into this cattle-
stealin' in your neighborhood, and if I do I'll sure come
borrowin'."

"Oh, I'll send you a boxful when I get back," said Alaire, and
Dave thanked her humbly.

Later, when he went to move his mare into a shady spot, the Ranger
chuckled and slapped his thigh with his hat. "Bessie Belle, we're
going to improve our minds," he said, aloud. "We're going to be
literary and read Pilgrim's Progress and Alice in Wonderland. I
bet we'll enjoy 'em, eh? But--doggone! She's a nice lady, and your
coat is just the same color as her hair."

Where the shade was densest and the breeze played most freely,
there Dave fixed a comfortable couch for his guest, and during the
heat of the forenoon she dozed.

Asleep she exercised upon him an even more disturbing effect than
when awake, for now he could study her beauty deliberately, from
the loose pile of warm, red hair to the narrow, tight-laced boots.
What he saw was altogether delightful. Her slightly parted lips
offered an irresistible attraction--almost an invitation; the heat
had lent a feverish flush to her cheeks; Dave could count the slow
pulsations of her white throat. He closed his eyes and tried to
quell his unruly longings. He was a strong man; adventurous days
and nights spent in the open had coarsened the masculine side of
his character, perhaps at expense to his finer nature, for it is a
human tendency to revert. He was masterful and ruthless; lacking
obligations or responsibilities of any sort, he had been
accustomed to take what he wanted; therefore the gaze he fixed
upon the sleeping woman betrayed an ardor calculated to deepen the
color in her cheeks, had she beheld it.

And yet, strangely enough, Dave realized that his emotions were
unaccountably mixed. This woman's distress had, of course, brought
a prompt and natural response; but now her implicit confidence in
his honor and her utter dependence upon him awoke his deepest
chivalry. Then, too, the knowledge that her life was unhappy,
indeed tragic, filled him with a sort of wondering pity. As he
continued to look at her these feelings grew until finally he
turned away his face. With his chin in his hands he stared out
somberly into the blinding heat. He had met few women, of late
years, and never one quite like this--never one, for instance, who
made him feel so dissatisfied with his own shortcomings.

After a time he rose and withdrew to the shelter of another tree,
there to content himself with mental images of his guest.

But one cannot sleep well with a tropic sun in the heavens, and
since there was really nothing for her to do until the heat
abated, Alaire, when she awoke, obliged the Ranger to amuse her.

Although she was in fact younger than he, married life had matured
her, and she treated him therefore like a boy. Law did not object.
Mrs. Austin's position in life was such that most men were humble
in her presence, and now her superior wisdom seemed to excite the
Ranger's liveliest admiration. Only now and then, as if in an
unguarded moment, did he appear to forget himself and speak with
an authority equaling her own. What he said at such times
indicated either a remarkably retentive memory or else an ability
to think along original lines too rare among men of his kind to be
easily credited.

For instance, during a discussion of the Mexican situation--and of
course their talk drifted thither, for at the moment it was the
one vitally interesting topic along the border--he excused the
barbarous practices of the Mexican soldiers by saying:

"Of course they're cruel, vindictive, treacherous, but after all
there are only a hundred and forty generations between us and
Adam; only a hundred and forty lifetimes since the Garden of Eden.
We civilized peoples are only a lap or two ahead of the
uncivilized ones. When you think that it takes ten thousand
generations to develop a plant and root out some of its early
heredities, you can see that human beings have a long way yet to
go before they become perfect. We're creatures of environment,
just like plants. Environment has made the Mexican what he is."

Certainly this was an amazing speech to issue from a sun-browned
cowboy sitting cross-legged under a mesquite-tree.

From under her hat-brim Alaire Austin eyed the speaker with a
curiosity into which there had come a vague hostility. For the
moment she was suspicious and piqued, but Law did not appear to
notice, and as he talked on her doubts gradually subsided.

"You said, last night, that you were born on the other side?" She
inclined her ruddy head to the west.

"Yes'm. My father was a mining man, and he done well over there
until he locked horns with the Guadalupes. Old Don Enrique and him
had a run-in at the finish, over some land or something. It was
when the Don was gobbling all the property in the state, and
laying the foundation for his big fortune. You know he had
permission from the president to steal all the land he cared to,
just like the rest of those local governors had. Well, Guadalupe
tried to run my people out."

"Did he succeed?"

"No'm. He killed 'em, but they stayed."

"Not--really?" The listener was shocked. "American citizens, too?"

"Times wasn't much different then than now. There's plenty of good
Americans been killed in Mexico and nothing done about it, even in
our day. I don't know all the details--never could get 'em,
either--for I was away at school; but after I came back from the
Philippines the Madero fuss was just brewing, so I went over and
joined it. But it didn't last long, and there wasn't enough
fighting to suit me. I've been back, off and on, since, and I've
burned a good deal of Guadalupe property and swum a good many head
of Guadalupe stock."

As the morning progressed Law proved himself an interesting
companion, and in spite of the discomforts of the situation the
hours slipped past rapidly. Luncheon was a disagreeable meal,
eaten while the arroyo baked and the heat devils danced on the
hills; but the unpleasantness was of brief duration, and Law
always managed to banish boredom. Nor did he seem to waste a
thought upon the nature of that grim business which brought him to
this place. Quite the contrary, in the afternoon he put his mare
through her tricks for Alaire's edification, and gossiped idly of
whatever interested his guest.

Then as the sun edged to the west and Mrs. Austin became restless,
he saddled Bessie Belle and led her down the gulch into a safer
covert.

Returning, he carefully obliterated all traces of the camp. He
watered the ashes of the fire, gathered up the tell-tale scraps of
paper and fragments of food, and then when the place suited him
fell to examining his rifle.

Alaire watched him with interest. "Where shall I go," she asked,
"and what shall I do?"

"You just pick out a good cover beyond the water-hole and stay
there, ma'am. It may be a long wait, for something may have
happened. If so we'll have to lie close. And don't worry yourself
none, ma'am; he won't make no trouble."

The afternoon drew to a close. Gradually the blinding white glare
of the sun lessened and yellowed, the shadow of the bluffs began
to stretch out. The shallow pool lay silent, deserted save for
furtive little shapes that darted nervously out of the leaves, or
for winged visitors that dropped out of the air.

With the sunset there came the sound of hoofs upon loose stones,
branches rustled against breasting bodies, and Mrs. Austin cowered
low in her hiding-place. But it was only the advance-guard of a
bunch of brush cattle coming to water. They paused at a distance,
and nothing except their thirst finally overcame their suspicions.
One by one they drifted into sight, drank warily at the remotest
edge of the tanque, then, alarmed at some imaginary sight or
sound, went clattering up the ravine.

Once again the water-hole lay sleeping.

Alaire's retreat was far from comfortable; there was an ants' nest
somewhere near her and she thought of moving; but suddenly her
breath caught and her heart jumped uncontrollably. She crouched
lower, for directly opposite her position, and outlined against
the sky where the sharp ridge cut it, was the figure of a mounted
man. Rider and horse were silhouetted against the pearl-gray
heaven like an equestrian statue. How long they had been there
Alaire had no faintest notion. Perhaps it was their coming which
had alarmed the cattle. She was conscious that a keen and hostile
pair of eyes was searching the coverts surrounding the charco.
Then, as silently as it had appeared, the apparition vanished
beyond the ridge, and Alaire wondered if the rider had taken
alarm. She earnestly hoped so; this breathless vigil was getting
on her nerves, and the sight of that threatening figure had set
her pulses to throbbing. The rider was on his guard, that was
plain; he was armed, too, and probably desperate. The ominous
possibilities of this ambush struck her forcibly.

Alaire lay close, as she had been directed, praying that the
horseman had been warned; but shortly she heard again the rustle
of stiff branches, and out into the opening rode a Mexican. He was
astride a wiry gray pony, and in the strong twilight Alaire could
see his every feature--the swarthy cheeks, the roving eyes beneath
the black felt hat. A carbine lay across his saddle-horn, a riata
was coiled beside his leg, a cartridge-belt circled his waist.
There was something familiar about the fellow, but at the moment
Alaire could not determine what it was.

After one swift appraising glance the new-comer rode straight to
the verge of the water-hole and dismounted; then he and his horse
drank side by side.

It was the moment for a complete and effective surprise, but
nothing happened. Why didn't Law act? Alaire bent low, straining
eyes and ears, but no command came from the Ranger. After a while
the traveler rose to his feet and stretched his limbs. Next he
walked to the ashes of the fire and looked down at them, stirring
them with his toe. Apparently satisfied, he lit a cigarette.

Could it be that something had gone wrong with the Ranger's plan?
Had something happened to him? Alaire was startled by the
possibility; this delay was beyond her comprehension.

Then, as if in answer to her perplexity, a second horseman
appeared, and the woman realized how simply she had been fooled.





Next: What Happened At The Water-hole

Previous: The Water-hole



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