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The Rodeo








From: Heart Of The Sunset

It was with a feeling of some reluctance that Dave drove up to Las
Palmas shortly after the lunch hour, for he had no desire to meet
"Young Ed." However, to his relief, Austin did not appear, and
inasmuch as Alaire did not refer to her husband in any way, Dave
decided that he must be absent, perhaps on one of his notorious
sprees.

The mistress of the big ranch was in her harness, having at once
assumed her neglected duties. She came to welcome her caller in a
short khaki riding-suit; her feet were encased in tan boots; she
wore a mannish felt hat and gauntlet gloves, showing that she had
spent the morning in the saddle. Dave thought she looked
exceedingly capable and business-like, and not less beautiful in
these clothes; he feasted his eyes covertly upon her.

"I expected you for luncheon," she smiled; and Dave could have
kicked himself. "I'm just going out now. If you're not in too
great a hurry to go home you may go with me."

"That would be fine," he agreed.

"Come, then I have a horse for you." As she led the way back
toward the farm buildings she explained: "I'm selling off a bunch
of cattle. Benito is rounding them up and cutting out the best
ones."

"You keep them, I reckon."

"Always. That's how I improve the grade. You will see a splendid
herd of animals, Mr. Law--the best in South Texas. I suppose
you're interested in such things."

"I'd rather watch a good herd of stock than the best show in New
York," he told her.

When they came to the corrals, an intricate series of pens and
chutes at the rear of the outbuildings, Law beheld two
thoroughbred horses standing at the hitching-rail.

"I'm proud of my horses, too," said Alaire.

"You have reason to be." With his eyes alight Dave examined the
fine points of both animals. He ran a caressing hand over them,
and they recognized in him a friend.

"These beauties were raised on Kentucky blue grass. Brother and
sister, aren't they?"

"Yes. Montrose and Montrosa are their names. The horse is mine,
the mare is yours." Seeing that Dave did not comprehend the full
import of her words, she added: "Yours to keep, I mean. You must
make another Bessie Belle out of her."

"MINE? Oh--ma'am'" Law turned his eyes from Alaire to the mare,
then back again. "You're too kind. I can't take her."

"You must."

Dave made as if to say something, but was too deeply embarrassed.
Unable to tear himself away from the mare's side, he continued to
stroke her shining coat while she turned an intelligent face to
him, showing a solitary white star in the center of her forehead.

"See! She is nearly the same color as Bessie Belle."

"Yes'm! I--I want her, ma'am; I'm just sick from wanting her, but-
-won't you let me buy her?"

"Oh, I wouldn't sell her." Then, as Dave continued to yearn over
the animal, like a small boy tempted beyond his strength, Alaire
laughed. "I owe you something, Mr. Law, and a horse more or less
means very little to me."

He yielded; he could not possibly continue his resistance, and in
his happy face Alaire took her reward.

The mare meanwhile was doubtfully nosing her new master, deciding
whether or not she liked him; but when he offered her a cube of
sugar her uncertainties disappeared and they became friends then
and there. He talked to her, too, in a way that would have won any
female heart, and it was plain to any one who knew horses that she
began to consider him wholly delightful. Now, Montrosa was a sad
coquette, but this man seemed to say, "Rosa, you rogue, if you try
your airs with me I will out-flirt you." Who could resist such a
person? Why, the touch of his hands was positively thrilling. He
was gentle, but masterful, and--he had a delicious smell. Rosa
felt that she understood him perfectly, and was enraptured to
discover that he understood her. There was some satisfaction in
knowing such a man.

"You DO speak their language," Alaire said, after she had watched
them for a few minutes. "You have bewitched the creature." Dave
nodded silently, and his face was young. Then half to herself the
woman murmured, "Yes, you have a heart."

"I beg pardon?"

"Nothing. I'm glad you like her."

"Do you mind if I call her something else than Rosa, just to
myself?"

"Why, she's yours! Don't you like the name?"

"Oh yes! But--see!" Dave laid a finger upon Montrosa's forehead.
"She wears a lone star, and I'd like to call her that--The Lone
Star."

Alaire smiled in tacit assent; then when the two friends had
completely established their intimacy she mounted her own horse
and led the way to the round-up.

Dave's unbounded delight filled the mistress of Las Palmas with
the keenest pleasure. He laughed, he hummed snatches of songs, he
kept up a chatter addressed as much to the mare as to his
companion, and under it Montrosa romped like a tomboy. It was
gratifying to meet with such appreciation as this; Alaire felt
warm and friendly to the whole world, and decided that out of her
abundance she must do more for other people.

Of course Dave had to tell of Don Ricardo's thoughtful gift, and
concluded by saying, "I think this must be my birthday, although
it doesn't fit in with the calendar."

"Don Ricardo has his enemies, but he is a good-hearted old man."

"Yes," Dave agreed. Then more gravely: "I'm sorry I let him go
across the river." There was a pause. "If anybody harms him I
reckon I'll have a feud on my hands, for I'm a grateful person."

"I believe it. I can see that you are loyal."

"I was starved on sentiment when I was little, but it's in me
bigger than a skinned ox. They say gratitude is an elemental,
primitive emotion--"

"Perhaps that's why it is so rare nowadays," said Alaire, not more
than half in jest.

"You find it rare?" Dave looked up keenly. "Well, you have
certainly laid up a store of it to-day."

Benito and his men had rounded up perhaps three thousand head of
cattle when Alaire and her companion appeared, and they were in
the process of "cutting out." Assembled near a flowing well which
gave life to a shallow pond, the herd was held together by a half-
dozen horsemen who rode its outskirts, heading off and driving
back the strays. Other men, under Benito's personal direction,
were isolating the best animals and sending them back to the
pasture. It was an animated scene, one fitted to rouse enthusiasm
in any plainsman, for the stock was fat and healthy; there were
many calves, and the incessant, rumbling complaint of the herd was
bloodstirring. The Las Palmas cowboys rode like centaurs,
doubling, dodging, yelling, and whirling their ropes like lashes;
the air was drumming to swift hoof-beats, and over all was the
hoarse, unceasing undertone from countless bovine throats. Out
near the grub-wagon the remuda was grazing, and thither at
intervals came the perspiring horsemen to change their mounts.

Benito, wet, dusty, and tired, rode up to his employer to report
progress.

"Dios! This is hot work for an old man. We will never finish by
dark," said he, whereupon Law promptly volunteered his services,

"Lend me your rope, Benito, till I get another caballo."

"Eh? That Montrosa is the best cutting horse on Las Palmas."

But Dave shook his head vigorously. "I wouldn't risk her among
those gopher-holes." He slid out of his seat and, with an arm
around the mare's neck, whispered into her ear, "We won't have any
broken legs and broken hearts, will we, honey girl?" Rosa answered
by nosing the speaker over with brazen familiarity; then when he
had removed her equipment and turned away, dragging her saddle,
she followed at his heels like a dog.

"Diablo! He has a way with horses, hasn't he?" Benito grinned,
"Now that Montrosa is wilder than a deer."

Alaire rode into the herd with her foreman, while Dave settled his
loop over a buckskin, preparatory to joining the cowboys.

The giant herd milled and eddied, revolving like a vast pool of
deep, swift water. The bulls were quarrelsome, the steers were
stubborn, and the wet cows were distracted. Motherless calves
dodged about in bewilderment. In and out of this confusion the
cowboys rode, following the animals selected for separation,
forcing them out with devious turnings and twistings, and then
running them madly in a series of breakneck crescent dashes over
flats and hummocks, through dust and brush, until they had joined
the smaller herd of choice animals which were to remain on the
ranch. It was swift, sweaty, exhausting work, the kind these
Mexicans loved, for it was not only spectacular, but held an
element of danger. Once he had secured a pony Dave Law made
himself one of them.

Alaire sat her horse in the heart of the crowding herd, with a sea
of rolling eyes, lolling tongues, and clashing horns all about
her, and watched the Ranger. Good riding she was accustomed to;
the horses of Las Palmas were trained to this work as bird dogs
are trained to theirs; they knew how to follow a steer and, as Ed
Austin boasted, "turn on a dime with a nickel to spare." But Law,
it appeared, was a born horseman, and seemed to inspire his mount
with an exceptional eagerness and intelligence. In spite of the
man's unusual size, he rode like a feather; he was grace and life
and youth personified. Now he sat as erect in his saddle as a
swaying reed; again he stretched himself out like a whip-lash.
Once he had begun the work he would not stop.

All that afternoon the cowboys labored, and toward sundown the
depleted herd was driven to the water. It moved thither in a
restless, thirsty mass; it churned the shallow pond to milk, and
from a high knoll, where Alaire had taken her stand, she looked
down upon a vast undulating carpet many acres in extent formed by
the backs of living creatures. The voice of these cattle was like
the bass rumble of the sea, steady, heavy-droning, ceaseless.

Then through the cool twilight came the drive to the next pasture,
and here the patience of the cowboys was taxed to the utmost, for
as the stronger members of the herd forged ahead, the wearied,
worried, littlest members fell behind. Their joints were limber,
and their legs unsteady; one and all were orphaned, too, for in
that babel of sound no untrained ears could catch a mother's low.
A mile of this and the whole rear guard was composed of plaintive,
wet-eyed little calves who made slower and slower progress. Some
of them were stubborn and risked all upon a spirited dash back
toward the homes they were leaving and toward the mothers who
would not answer. It took hard, sharp riding to run them down, for
they fled like rabbits, bolting through prickly-pear and scrub,
their tails bravely aloft, their stiff legs flying. Others, too
tired and thirsty to go farther, lay down and refused to budge,
and these had to be carried over the saddlehorn until they had
rested. Some hid themselves cunningly in the mesquite clumps or
burrowed into the coarse sagauista grass.

But now those swarthy, dare-devil riders were as gentle as women;
they urged the tiny youngsters onward with harmless switches or
with painless blows from loose-coiled riatas; they picked them up
in their arms and rode with them.

Once through the gate and safe inside the restraining pasture
fence, the herd was allowed to settle down. Then began a patient
search by outraged mothers, a series of mournful quests that were
destined to continue far into the night; endless nosings and
sniffings and caressings, which would keep up until each cow had
found her own, until each calf was butting its head against
maternal ribs and gaining that consolation which it craved.

A new moon was swinging in the sky as Alaire and Dave rode back
toward Las Palmas. The dry, gray grass was beginning to jewel with
dew; the paths were ribbons of silver between dark blots of ink
where the bushes grew. Behind rose the jingle of spurs and
bridles, the creak of leather, the voices of men. It was an hour
in which to talk freely, an environment suited to confidences, and
Dave Law was happier than he had been for years. He closed his
eyes to the future, he stopped his ears to misgivings; with a song
in his heart he rode at the stirrup of the woman he adored.

How or when Alaire Austin came to feel that this man loved her she
never knew. Certainly he gave no voice to his feeling, save,
perhaps, by some unconscious tone or trick of speech; rather, the
knowledge came to her intuitively as the result of some
subconscious interchange of thought, some responsive vibration,
which only a psychologist could analyze. However it was, Alaire
knew to-night that she was dear to her companion, and, strange to
say, this certainty did not disturb her. Inasmuch as the thing
existed, why deny its right to exist? she asked herself. Since it
was in no wise dishonorable, how could it be wrong, provided it
went no further? Alaire had been repelled by Luis Longorio's
evident love for her, but a similar emotion in this man's breast
had quite the opposite effect. She was eager for friendship,
hungry for affection, starved for that worship which every woman
lives upon. Having a wholesome confidence in her own strength of
character, and complete faith in Law's sense of honor, she was
neither alarmed nor offended.

For the first time in years she allowed her intimate thoughts free
expression, and spoke of her hopes, her interests, and her
efforts; under the spell of the moonlight she even confided
something about those dreams that kept her company and robbed her
world of its sordidness. Dave Law discovered that she lived in a
fanciful land of unrealities, and the glimpse he gained of it was
delightful.

Supper was waiting when they arrived at Las Palmas, and Dolores
announced that "Young Ed" had telephoned from the Lewis ranch that
he would not be home. Yielding to a sudden impulse, Alaire said to
her companion:

"You must dine with me. Dolores will show you to a room. I will be
ready in half an hour."

Dave hesitated, but it was not in human nature to refuse. Later,
as he washed himself and combed his hair, he had a moment of
misgivings; but the next instant he asked himself wherein he was
doing wrong. Surely there was no law which denied him the right to
love, provided he kept that love a secret. The inner voice did not
argue with him; yet he was disquieted and restless as he paced the
big living-room, waiting for his hostess.

The Austin ranch-house offered a contrast to the majority of Texas
country homes. "Young Ed" had built almost a mansion for his
bride, and in the latter years Alaire had remodeled and changed it
to suit her own ideas. The verandas were wide, the rooms large and
cool and open; polished floors, brilliant grass mats, and easy
wicker furniture gave it a further airiness. The place was
comfortable, luxurious; yet it was a home and it had an
atmosphere.

Not for many years had Dave Law been a guest amid such
surroundings, and as the moments dragged on he began to feel more
and more out of place. With growing discomfort he realized that
the mistress of this residence was the richest woman in all this
part of Texas, and that he was little better than a tramp. His
free life, his lack of care and responsibility, had bred in him a
certain contempt for money; nevertheless, when through the door to
the dining-room he saw Alaire pause to give a final touch to the
table, he was tempted to beat an ignominious retreat, for she was
a radiant vision in evening dress. She was stately, beautiful; her
hair was worn high, her arms were bare underneath a shimmer of
lace, her gown exposed a throat round and smooth and adorable. In
reality, she was simply clad; but to the Ranger's untrained eye
she seemed regal, and his own rough clothes became painfully
conspicuous by contrast.

Alaire knew how to be a gracious and winning hostess; of course
she did not appear to notice her guest's embarrassment. She had
rather welcomed the thought that this man cared for her, and yet,
had she deliberately planned to dampen his feeling, she could
hardly have succeeded better than by showing him the wide
disparity in their lives and situations. Dave was dismayed; he
felt very poor and ridiculous. Alaire was no longer the woman he
had ridden with through the solitudes; her very friendliness
seemed to be a condescension.

He did not linger long after they had dined, for he wished to be
alone, where he could reach an understanding with himself. On the
steps he waited just a moment for Alaire to mention, if she chose,
that subject which they had still left open on the night before.
Reading his thought, she said:

"You are expecting me to say something about Panfilo Sanchez."

"Yes."

"I have thought it over; in fact, I have been thinking about it
all day; but even yet I don't know what to tell you. One moment I
think the truth would merely provoke another act of violence; the
next I feel that it must be made public regardless of
consequences. As for its effect upon myself--you know I care very
little what people say or think."

"I'm sorry I killed the fellow--I shouldn't have done it, but--one
sees things differently out in the rough and here in the settled
country. Laws don't work alike in all places; they depend a good
deal upon--geography. There are times when the theft of a crust of
bread would warrant the punishment I gave Panfilo. I can't help
but feel that his conduct, under the circumstances, called for--
what he got. He wasn't a good man, in spite of what Jose says;
Anto confessed to me that they were planning all sorts of deviltry
together."

"That is hardly an excuse." Alaire smiled faintly.

"Oh, I know!" Dave agreed. "But, you see, I don't feel the need of
one. The sentimental side of the affair, which bothers you,
doesn't affect me in the least."

Alaire nodded. "You have made me understand how you look at
things, and I must confess that I tolerate actions that would have
shocked me before I came to know this country. Panfilo is dead and
gone--rightly or wrongly, I don't know. What I dread now is
further consequences."

"Don't weaken on my account."

"No! I'm not thinking of the consequences to you or to me. You are
the kind of man who can protect himself, I'm sure; your very
ability in that direction frightens me a little on Jose's account.
But"--she sighed and lifted her round shoulders in a shrug--
"perhaps time will decide this question for us."

Dave laughed with some relief. "I think you've worried yourself
enough over it, ma'am," he said; "splitting hairs as to what's
right and what's wrong, when it doesn't matter much, in either
case. Suppose you continue to think it over at your leisure."

"Perhaps I'd better. And now"--Alaire extended her hand--"won't
you and Montrosa come to see me once in a while? I'm very
lonesome."

"We'd love to," Dave declared. He had it on his lips to say more,
but at that moment an eager whinny and an impatient rattle of a
bridle-bit came from the driveway, and he smiled. "There's her
acceptance now."

"Oh no! She merely heard your voice, the fickle creature."

Alaire watched her guest until be had disappeared into the
shadows, then she heard him talking to the mare. Benito's words at
the rodeo recurred to her, and she wondered if this Ranger might
not also have a way with women.

The house was very still and empty when she re-entered it.





Next: The Guzman Incident

Previous: The Truth About Panfilo



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