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The Water-hole








From: Heart Of The Sunset

A fitful breeze played among the mesquite bushes. The naked earth,
where it showed between the clumps of grass, was baked plaster
hard. It burned like hot slag, and except for a panting lizard
here and there, or a dust-gray jack-rabbit, startled from its
covert, nothing animate stirred upon its face. High and motionless
in the blinding sky a buzzard poised; long-tailed Mexican crows
among the thorny branches creaked and whistled, choked and
rattled, snored and grunted; a dove mourned inconsolably, and out
of the air issued metallic insect cries--the direction whence they
came as unascertainable as their source was hidden.

Although the sun was half-way down the west, its glare remained
untempered, and the tantalizing shade of the sparse mesquite was
more of a trial than a comfort to the lone woman who, refusing its
deceitful invitation, plodded steadily over the waste. Stop,
indeed, she dared not. In spite of her fatigue, regardless of the
torture from feet and limbs unused to walking, she must, as she
constantly assured herself, keep going until strength failed. So
far, fortunately, she had kept her head, and she retained
sufficient reason to deny the fanciful apprehensions which
clamored for audience. If she once allowed herself to become
panicky, she knew, she would fare worse--far worse--and now, if
ever, she needed all her faculties. Somewhere to the northward,
perhaps a mile, perhaps a league distant, lay the water-hole.

But the country was of a deadly and a deceitful sameness, devoid
of landmarks and lacking well-defined water-courses. The unending
mesquite with its first spring foliage resembled a limitless
peach-orchard sown by some careless and unbelievably prodigal
hand. Out of these false acres occasional knolls and low stony
hills lifted themselves so that one came, now and then, to
vantage-points where the eye leaped for great distances across
imperceptible valleys to horizons so far away that the scattered
tree-clumps were blended into an unbroken carpet of green. To the
woman these outlooks were unutterably depressing, merely serving
to reveal the vastness of the desolation about her.

At the crest of such a rise she paused and studied the country
carefully, but without avail. She felt dizzily for the desert bag
swung from her shoulder, only to find it flat and dry; the
galvanized mouthpiece burned her fingers. With a little shock she
remembered that she had done this very thing several times before,
and her repeated forgetting frightened her, since it seemed to
show that her mind had been slightly unbalanced by the heat. That
perhaps explained why the distant horizon swam and wavered so.

In all probability a man situated as she was would have spoken
aloud, in an endeavor to steady himself; but this woman did
nothing of the sort. Seating herself in the densest shade she
could find--it was really no shade at all--she closed her eyes and
relaxed--no easy thing to do in such a stifling temperature and
when her throat was aching with drought.

At length she opened her eyes again, only to find that she could
make out nothing familiar. Undoubtedly she was lost; the water-
hole might be anywhere. She listened tensely, and the very air
seemed to listen with her; the leaves hushed their faint
whisperings; a near-by cactus held its forty fleshy ears alert,
while others more distant poised in the same harkening attitude.
It seemed to the woman that a thousand ears were straining with
hers, yet no sound came save only the monotonous crescendo and
diminuendo of those locust-cries coming out of nowhere and
retreating into the voids. At last, as if satisfied, the leaves
began to whisper softly again.

Away to her left lay the yellow flood of the Rio Grande, but the
woman, though tempted to swing in that direction, knew better than
to yield. At least twenty miles of barrens lay between, and she
told herself that she could never cover such a distance. No, the
water-hole was nearer; it must be close at hand. If she could only
think a little more clearly, she could locate it. Once more she
tried, as she had tried many times before, to recall the exact
point where she had shot her horse, and to map in her mind's eye
the foot-weary course she had traveled from that point onward.

Desert travel was nothing new to her, thirst and fatigue were old
acquaintances, yet she could not help wondering if, in spite of
her training, in spite of that inborn sense of direction which she
had prided herself upon sharing with the wild creatures, she were
fated to become a victim of the chaparral. The possibility was
remote; death at this moment seemed as far off as ever--if
anything it was too far off. No, she would find the water-hole
somehow; or the unexpected would happen, as it always did when one
was in dire straits. She was too young and too strong to die yet.
Death was not so easily won as this.

Rising, she readjusted the strap of the empty water-bag over her
shoulder and the loose cartridge-belt at her hip, then set her
dusty feet down the slope.

Day died lingeringly. The sun gradually lost its cruelty, but a
partial relief from the heat merely emphasized the traveler's
thirst and muscular distress. Onward she plodded, using her eyes
as carefully as she knew how. She watched the evening flight of
the doves, thinking to guide herself by their course, but she was
not shrewd enough to read the signs correctly. The tracks she
found were old, for the most part, and they led in no particular
direction, nowhere uniting into anything like a trail. She
wondered, if she could bring herself to drink the blood of a jack-
rabbit, and if it would quench her thirst. But the thought was
repellent, and, besides, she was not a good shot with a revolver.
Nor did the cactus offer any relief, since it was only just coming
into bloom, and as yet bore no fruit.

The sun had grown red and huge when at last in the hard-baked dirt
she discovered fresh hoof-prints. These seemed to lead along the
line in which she was traveling, and she followed them gladly,
encouraged when they were joined by others, for, although they
meandered aimlessly, they formed something more like a trail than
anything she had as yet seen. Guessing at their general direction,
she hurried on, coming finally into a region where the soil was
shallow and scarcely served to cover the rocky substratum. A low
bluff rose on her left, and along its crest scattered Spanish
daggers were raggedly silhouetted against the sky.

She was in a well-defined path now; she tried to run, but her legs
were heavy; she stumbled a great deal, and her breath made
strange, distressing sounds as it issued from her open lips.
Hounding the steep shoulder of the ridge, she hastened down a
declivity into a knot of scrub-oaks and ebony-trees, then halted,
staring ahead of her.

The nakedness of the stony arroyo, the gnarled and stunted
thickets, were softened by the magic of twilight; the air had
suddenly cooled; overhead the empty, flawless sky was deepening
swiftly from blue to purple; the chaparral had awakened and echoed
now to the sounds of life. Nestling in a shallow, flinty bowl was
a pool of water, and on its brink a little fire was burning.

It was a tiny fire, overhung with a blackened pot; the odor of
greasewood and mesquite smoke was sharp. A man, rising swiftly to
his feet at the first sound, was staring at the new-comer; he was
as alert as any wild thing. But the woman scarcely heeded him. She
staggered directly toward the pond, seeing nothing after the first
glance except the water. She would have flung herself full length
upon the edge, but the man stepped forward and stayed her, then
placed a tin cup in her hand. She mumbled something in answer to
his greeting and the hoarse, raven-like croak in her voice
startled her; then she drank, with trembling eagerness, drenching
the front of her dress. The water was warm, but it was clean and
delicious.

"Easy now. Take your time," said the man, as he refilled the cup.
"It won't give out."

She knelt and wet her face and neck; the sensation was so grateful
that she was tempted to fling herself bodily into the pool. The
man was still talking, but she took no heed of what he said. Then
at last she sank back, her feet curled under her, her body
sagging, her head drooping. She felt the stranger's hands beneath
her arms, felt herself lifted to a more comfortable position.
Without asking permission, the stranger unlaced first one, then
the other of her dusty boots, seeming not to notice her weak
attempt at resistance. Once he had placed her bare feet in the
water, she forgot her resentment in the intense relief.

The man left her seated in a collapsed, semi-conscious state, and
went back to his fire. For the time she was too tired to do more
than refill the drinking-cup occasionally, or to wet her face and
arms, but as her pores drank greedily her exhaustion lessened and
her vitality returned.

It was dark when for the first time she turned her head toward the
camp-fire and stared curiously at the figure there. The appetizing
odor of broiling bacon had drawn her attention, and as if no move
went unnoticed the man said, without lifting his eyes:

"Let 'em soak! Supper'll be ready directly. How'd you like your
eggs--if we had any?"

Evidently he expected no reply, for after a chuckle he began to
whistle softly, in a peculiarly clear and liquid tone, almost like
some bird-call. He had spoken with an unmistakable Texas drawl;
the woman put him down at once for a cowboy. She settled her back
against a boulder and rested.

The pool had become black and mysterious, the sky was studded with
stars when he called her, and she laboriously drew on her
stockings and boots. Well back from the fire he had arranged a
seat for her, using a saddle-blanket for a covering, and upon this
she lowered herself stiffly. As she did so she took fuller notice
of the man, and found his appearance reassuring.

"I suppose you wonder how I--happen to be here," she said.

"Now don't talk 'til you're rested, miss. This coffee is strong
enough to walk on its hands, and I reckon about two cups of it'll
rastle you into shape." As she raised the tin mug to her lips he
waved a hand and smiled. "Drink hearty!" He set a plate of bread
and bacon in her lap, then opened a glass jar of jam. "Here's the
dulces. I've got a sort of sweet tooth in my head. I reckon you'll
have to make out with this, 'cause I rode in too late to rustle
any fresh meat, and the delivery-wagon won't be 'round before
morning." So saying, he withdrew to the fire.

The woman ate and drank slowly. She was too tired to be hungry,
and meanwhile the young man squatted upon his heels and watched
her through the smoke from a husk cigarette. It was perhaps
fortunate for her peace of mind that she could not correctly
interpret his expression, for had she been able to do so she would
have realized something of the turmoil into which her presence had
thrown him. He was accustomed to meeting men in unexpected places-
-even in the desert's isolation--but to have a night camp in the
chaparral invaded by a young and unescorted woman, to have a foot-
sore goddess stumble out of the dark and collapse into his arms,
was a unique experience and one calculated to disturb a person of
his solitary habits.

"Have you had your supper?" she finally inquired.

"Who, me? Oh, I'll eat with the help." He smiled, and when his
flashing teeth showed white against his leathery tan the woman
decided he was not at all bad-looking. He was very tall and quite
lean, with the long legs of a horseman--this latter feature
accentuated by his high-heeled boots and by the short canvas
cowboy coat that reached only to his cartridge-belt. His features
she could not well make out, for the fire was little more than a
bed of coals, and he fed it, Indian-like, with a twig or two at a
time.

"I beg your pardon. I'm selfish." She extended her cup and plate
as an invitation for him to share their contents. "Please eat with
me."

But he refused. "I ain't hungry," he affirmed. "Honest!"

Accustomed as she was to the diffidence of ranch-hands, she
refrained from urging him, and proceeded with her repast. When she
had finished she lay back and watched him as he ate sparingly.

"My horse fell crossing the Arroyo Grande," she announced,
abruptly. "He broke a leg, and I had to shoot him."

"Is there any water in the Grande?" asked the man.

"No. They told me there was plenty. I knew of this charco, so I
made for it."

"Who told you there was water in the arroyo?"

"Those Mexicans at the little-goat ranch."

"Balli. So you walked in from Arroyo Grande. Lord! It's a good ten
miles straightaway, and I reckon you came crooked. Eh?"

"Yes. And it was very hot. I was never here but once, and--the
country looks different when you're afoot."

"It certainly does," the man nodded. Then he continued, musingly:
"No water there, eh? I figured there might be a little." The fact
appeared to please him, for he nodded again as he went on with his
meal. "Not much rain down here, I reckon."

"Very little. Where are you from?"

"Me? Hebbronville. My name is Law."

Evidently, thought the woman, this fellow belonged to the East
outfit, or some of the other big cattle-ranches in the
Hebbronville district. Probably he was a range boss or a foreman.
After a time she said, "I suppose the nearest ranch is that Balli
place?"

"Yes'm."

"I'd like to borrow your horse."

Mr. Law stared into his plate. "Well, miss, I'm afraid--"

She added, hastily, "I'll send you a fresh one by Balli's boy in
the morning."

He looked up at her from under the brim of his hat. "D'you reckon
you could find that goat-ranch by star-light, miss?"

The woman was silent.

"'Ain't you just about caught up on traveling, for one day?" he
asked. "I reckon you need a good rest about as much as anybody I
ever saw. You can have my blanket, you know."

The prospect was unwelcome, yet she reluctantly agreed. "Perhaps--
Then in the morning--"

Law shook his head. "I can't loan you my horse, miss. I've got to
stay right here."

"But Balli's boy could bring him back."

"I got to meet a man."

"Here?"

"Yes'm."

"When will he come?"

"He'd ought to be here at early dark to-morrow evening." Heedless
of her dismay, he continued, "Yes'm, about sundown."

"But--I can't stay here. I'll ride to Balli's and have your horse
back by afternoon."

"My man might come earlier than I expect," Mr. Law persisted.

"Really, I can't see what difference it would make. It wouldn't
interfere with your appointment to let me--"

Law smiled slowly, and, setting his plate aside, selected a fresh
cigarette; then as he reached for a coal he explained:

"I haven't got what you'd exactly call an appointment. This feller
I'm expectin' is a Mexican, and day before yesterday he killed a
man over in Jim Wells County. They got me by 'phone at
Hebbronville and told me he'd left. He's headin' for the border,
and he's due here about sundown, now that Arroyo Grande's dry. I
was aimin' to let you ride his horse."

"Then--you're an officer?"

"Yes'm. Ranger. So you see I can't help you to get home till my
man comes. Do you live around here?" The speaker looked up
inquiringly, and after an instant's hesitation the woman said,
quietly:

"I am Mrs. Austin." She was grateful for the gloom that hid her
face. "I rode out this way to examine a tract of grazing-land."

It seemed fully a minute before the Ranger answered; then he said,
in a casual tone, "I reckon Las Palmas is quite a ranch, ma'am."

"Yes. But we need more pasture."

"I know your La Feria ranch, too. I was with General Castro when
we had that fight near there."

"You were a Maderista?"

"Yes'm. Machine-gun man. That's a fine country over there. Seems
like God Almighty got mixed and put the Mexicans on the wrong side
of the Rio Grande. But I reckon you haven't seen much of La Feria
since the last revolution broke out."

"No. We have tried to remain neutral, but--" Again she hesitated.
"Mr. Austin has enemies. Fortunately both sides have spared La
Feria."

Law shrugged his broad shoulders. "Oh, well, the revolution isn't
over! A ranch in Mexico is my idea of a bad investment." He rose
and, taking his blanket, sought a favorable spot upon which to
spread it. Then he helped Mrs. Austin to her feet--her muscles had
stiffened until she could barely stand--after which he fetched his
saddle for a pillow. He made no apologies for his meager
hospitality, nor did his guest expect any.

When he had staked out his horse for the night he returned to find
the woman rolled snugly in her covering, as in a cocoon. The dying
embers flickered into flame and lit her hair redly. She had laid
off her felt Stetson, and one loosened braid lay over her hard
pillow. Thinking her asleep, Law stood motionless, making no
attempt to hide his expression of wonderment until, unexpectedly,
she spoke.

"What will you do with me when your Mexican comes?" she said.

"Well, ma'am, I reckon I'll hide you out in the brush till I tame
him. I hope you sleep well."

"Thank you. I'm used to the open."

He nodded as if he well knew that she was; then, shaking out his
slicker, turned away.

As he lay staring up through the thorny mesquite branches that
roofed him inadequately from the dew he marveled mightily. A
bright, steady-burning star peeped through the leaves at him, and
as he watched it he remembered that this red-haired woman with the
still, white face was known far and wide through the lower valley
as "The Lone Star." Well, he mused, the name fitted her; she was,
if reports were true, quite as mysterious, quite as cold and fixed
and unapproachable, as the title implied. Knowledge of her
identity had come as a shock, for Law knew something of her
history, and to find her suing for his protection was quite
thrilling. Tales of her pale beauty were common and not tame, but
she was all and more than she had been described. And yet why had
no one told him she was so young? This woman's youth and
attractiveness amazed him; he felt that he had made a startling
discovery. Was she so cold, after all, or was she merely reserved?
Red hair above a pure white face; a woman's form wrapped in his
blanket; ripe red lips caressing the rim of his mean drinking-cup!
Those were things to think about. Those were pictures for a lonely
man.

She had not been too proud and cold to let him help her. In her
fatigue she had allowed him to lift her and to make her more
comfortable. Hot against his palms--palms unaccustomed to the
touch of woman's flesh--he felt the contact of her naked feet, as
at the moment when he had placed them in the cooling water. Her
feeble resistance had only called attention to her sex--to the
slim whiteness of her ankles beneath her short riding-skirt.

Following his first amazement at beholding her had come a
fantastic explanation of her presence--for a moment or two it had
seemed as if the fates had taken heed of his yearnings and had
sent her to him out of the dusk--wild fancies, like these, bother
men who are much alone. Of course he had not dreamed that she was
the mistress of Las Palmas. That altered matters, and yet--they
were to spend a long idle day together. If the Mexican did not
come, another night like this would follow, and she was virtually
his prisoner. Perhaps, after all--

Dave Law stirred nervously and sighed.

"Don't this beat hell?" he murmured.





Next: The Ambush

Previous: The Call Of The Oreads



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