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What Happened At The Water-hole








From: Heart Of The Sunset

The new-comers exchanged a word or two in Spanish, then the second
rider flung himself from his saddle and made for the water. He was
lying prone and drinking deeply when out of nowhere came a sharp
command.

"Oiga! Hands up, both of you!"

The first arrival jumped as if a rattlesnake had buzzed at his
back, the second leaped to his feet with an oath; they stared in
the direction whence the voice had come.

"Drop your gun, companero!" The order was decisive; it was
directed at the man who had first appeared, for the other had left
his Winchester in its scabbard.

Both Mexicans cried, as if at a cue, "Who speaks?"

"A Ranger."

The fellow Law had addressed let fall his rifle; two pairs of dark
hands rose slowly. Then the Ranger went on in Spanish:

"Anto, lower your left hand and unbuckle your belt." Anto did as
he was told, his revolver and cartridge-belt dropped to the
ground. "And you, compadre, do the same. Mind you, the left hand!
Now face about and walk to the charco, both of you. Good!"

Law stepped into view, his Winchester in the crook of his arm. He
emptied the three discarded weapons, then, walking to Anto's
horse, he removed the second carbine from beneath the saddle-flap
and ejected its shells into his palm.

This done, he addressed the stranger. "Now, friend, who are you,
and why are you riding with this fellow?"

"My name is Panfilo Sanchez, senor. Before God, I have done
nothing." The speaker was tremendously excited.

"Well, Panfilo, that will take some proving," the Ranger muttered.

"What do you say?"

The gist of this statement having been repeated in Spanish, both
prisoners burst into clamorous explanation of their presence
together. Panfilo, it seemed, had encountered his companion purely
by chance, and was horrified now to learn that his newly made
friend was wanted by the authorities. In the midst of his
incoherent protestations Mrs. Austin appeared.

"He is telling you the truth, Mr. Law," she said, quietly. "He is
one of my men."

Both Mexicans looked blank. At sight of the speaker their mouths
fell open, and Panfilo ceased his gesticulations.

Mrs. Austin went on: "He is my horse-breaker's cousin. He couldn't
have had any part in that murder in Jim Wells County, for he was
at Las Palmas when I left."

Panfilo recovered from his amazement, removed his sombrero, and
blessed his employer extravagantly; then he turned triumphantly
upon his captor. "Behold!" cried he. "There you have the truth. I
am an excellent, hard-working man and as honest as God."

"Surely you don't want him," Alaire appealed to Law. "He was
probably helping his countryman to escape--but they all do that,
you know."

"All right! If he's your man, that's enough," Dave told her. "Now
then, boys, it will soon be dark and we'll need some supper before
we start. It won't hurt Anto's horse to rest a bit, either. You
are under arrest," he added, addressing the latter. "You
understand what that means?"

"Si, senor!"

"I won't tie you unless--"

"No, senor!" Anto understood perfectly, and was grateful.

"Well, then, build a fire, and you, Panfilo, lend a hand. The
senora will need a cup of tea, for we three have a long ride ahead
of us."

No time was lost. Both Mexicans fell to with a will, and in a
surprisingly short time water was boiling. When it came Law's turn
to eat, Alaire, who was eager to be gone, directed her employee to
fetch the Ranger's horse. Panfilo acquiesced readily and buckled
on his cartridge-belt and six-shooter. He was about to pick up his
rifle, too, but finding Law's eyes inquiringly fixed upon him, he
turned with a shrug and disappeared down the arroyo. It was plain
that he considered his friendly relations well established and
resented the Ranger's suspicion.

"How long has that fellow been working for you?" Law jerked his
head in the direction Panfilo had taken.

"Not long. I--don't know much about him," Alaire confessed. Then,
as if in answer to his unspoken question, "But I'm sure he's all
right."

"Is he looking up range for you?"

"N--no! I left him at the ranch. I don't know how he came to be
here, unless--It IS rather strange!"

Dave shot a swift, interrogatory glance at Panfilo's traveling
companion, but Anto's face was stony, his black eyes were fixed
upon the fire.

With an abrupt gesture Law flung aside the contents of his cup and
strode to Panfilo's horse, which stood dejectedly with reins
hanging.

"Where are you--going?" Alaire rose nervously.

It was nearly dark now; only the crests of the ridges were plain
against the luminous sky; in the brushy bottom of the arroyo the
shadows were deep. Alaire had no wish to be left alone with the
prisoner.

With bridle-rein and carbine in his left hand, the Ranger halted,
then, stooping for Anto's discarded cartridge-belt, he looped it
over his saddle-horn. He vaulted easily into the seat, saying:

"I hid that mare pretty well. Your man may not be able to find
her." Then he turned his borrowed horse's head toward the brush.

Anto had squatted motionless until this moment; he had not even
turned his eyes; but now, without the slightest warning, he
uttered a loud call. It might have served equally well as a
summons or as an alarm, but it changed the Ranger's suspicions
into certainty. Dave uttered an angry exclamation, then to the
startled woman he cried:

"Watch this man! He can't hurt you, for I've got his shells." To
his prisoner he said, sharply: "Stay where you are! Don't move!"
The next instant he had loped into the brush on the tracks of
Panfilo Sanchez, spurring the tired gray pony into vigorous
action.

It was an uncomfortable situation in which Alaire now found
herself. Law was too suspicious, she murmured to herself; he was
needlessly melodramatic; she felt exceedingly ill at ease as the
pony's hoof-beats grew fainter. She was not afraid of Anto, having
dealt with Mexican vaqueros for several years, yet she could not
forget that he was a murderer, and she wondered what she was
expected to do if he should try to escape. It was absurd to
suppose that Panfilo, her own hired man, could be capable of
treachery; the mere suspicion was a sort of reflection upon her.

Alaire was startled by hearing other hoof-beats now; their
drumming came faint but unmistakable. Yes, there were two horses
racing down the arroyo. Anto, the fugitive, rose to his feet and
stared into the dusk. "Sit down!" Alaire ordered, sharply. He
obeyed, muttering beneath his breath, but his head was turned as
if in an effort to follow the sounds of the pursuit.

Next came the distant rattle of loosened stones--evidently one
horse was being urged toward the open high ground--then the
peaceful quiet evening was split by the report of Law's thirty-
thirty. Another shot followed, and then a third. Both Alaire and
her prisoner were on their feet, the woman shaking in every limb,
the Mexican straining his eyes into the gloom and listening
intently.

Soon there came a further echo of dry earth and gravel dislodged,
but whether by Law's horse or by that of Sanchez was uncertain.
Perhaps both men had gained the mesa.

It had all happened so quickly and so unexpectedly that Alaire
felt she must be dreaming, or that there had been some idiotic
mistake. She wondered if the Ranger's sudden charge had not simply
frightened Panfilo into a panicky flight, and she tried to put her
thoughts into words the Mexican would understand, but his answer
was unintelligible. His black scowl, however, was eloquent of
uncertainty and apprehension.

Alaire had begun to feel the strain of the situation and was
trying to decide what next to do, when David Law came riding out
of the twilight. He was astride the gray; behind him at the end of
a lariat was Bessie Belle, and her saddle was empty.

Mrs. Austin uttered a sharp cry.

Law dismounted and strode to the prisoner. His face was black with
fury; he seemed gigantic in his rage. Without a word he raised his
right hand and cuffed the Mexican to his knees. Then he leaped
upon him, as a dog might pounce upon a rabbit, rolled him to his
face, and twisted the fellow's arms into the small of his back.
Anto cursed, he struggled, but he was like a child in the Ranger's
grasp. Law knelt upon him, and with a jerk of his riata secured
the fellow's wrists; rising, he set the knot with another heave
that dragged the prisoner to his knees. Next he booted Anto to his
feet.

"By God! I've a notion to bend a gun over your head," Law growled.
"Clever little game, wasn't it?"

"Where--? Did you--kill him?" the woman gasped.

Alaire had never beheld such a demoniac expression as Law turned
upon her. The man's face was contorted, his eyes were blazing
insanely, his chest was heaving, and for an instant he seemed to
include her in his anger. Ignoring her inquiry, he went to his
mare and ran his shaking hands over her as if in search of an
injury; his questing palms covered every inch of glistening hide
from forelock to withers, from shoulder to hoof, and under cover
of this task he regained in some degree his self-control.

"That hombre of yours--didn't look right to me," he said, finally.
Laying his cheek against Bessie Belle's neck, as a woman snuggles
close to the man of her choice, he addressed the mare: "I reckon
nobody is going to steal you, eh? Not if I know it. No, sir; that
hombre wasn't any good, was he?"

Alaire wet her lips. "Then you--shot him?"

Law laughed grimly, almost mockingly. "Say! He must be a favorite
of yours?"

"N-no! I hardly knew the fellow. But--did you?"

"I didn't say I shot him," he told her, gruffly. "I warned him
first, and he turned on me--blew smoke in my face. Then he took to
the brush, afoot, and--I cut down on him once more to help him
along."

"He got away?"

"I reckon so."

"Oh, oh!" Alaire's tone left no doubt of her relief. "He was
always a good man--"

"Good? Didn't he steal my horse? Didn't he aim to get me at the
first chance and free his compadre? That's why he wanted his
Winchester. Say! I reckon he--needs killin' about as much as
anybody I know."

"I can't understand it." Alaire sat down weakly. "One of my men,
too."

"This fellow behaved himself while I was gone, eh?" Law jerked his
head in Anto's direction. "I was afraid he--he'd try something. If
he had--" Such a possibility, oddly enough, seemed to choke the
speaker, and the ferocity of his unfinished threat caused Mrs.
Austin to look up at him curiously. There was a moment of silence,
then he said, shortly: "Well, we've got a horse apiece now. Let's
go."

The stars had thickened and brightened, rounding the night sky
into a glittering dome. Anto, the murderer, with his ankles lashed
beneath his horse's belly, rode first; next, in a sullen silence,
came the Ranger, his chin upon his breast; and in the rear
followed Alaire Austin.

In spite of her release from a trying predicament, the woman was
scarcely more eager to go home than was the prisoner, for while
Anto's trail led to a jail, hers led to Las Palmas, and there was
little difference. These last two days in the open had been like a
glimpse of freedom; for a time Alaire had almost lost the taste of
bitter memories. It had required an effort of will to drug
remembrance, but she had succeeded, and had proven her ability to
forget. But now--Las Palmas! It meant the usual thing, the same
endless battle between her duty and her desire. She was tired of
the fight that resulted neither in victory nor defeat; she longed
now, more than ever, to give up and let things take their course.
Why could not women, as well as men, yield to their inclinations--
drift with the current instead of breasting it until they were
exhausted? There was David Law, for instance; he was utterly
carefree, no duties shackled him. He had his horse, his gun, and
his blanket, and they were enough; Alaire, like him, was young,
her mind was eager, her body ripe, and her veins full of fire.
Life must be sweet to those who were free and happy.

But the object of her envy was not so completely at peace with
himself as she supposed. Even yet his mind was in a black turmoil
from his recent anger, and of late, be it said, these spells of
temper had given him cause for uneasiness. Then, too, there was a
lie upon his lips.

Under the stars, at the break of the arroyo, three hundred yards
below the water-hole, a coyote was slinking in a wide circle
around the body of Panfilo Sanchez.





Next: An Evening At Las Palmas

Previous: The Ambush



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