A Ranger's Horse





Onward through the dense foliage the two friends wound. Now and

then they stopped to listen, but the rain was heavy enough to

drown all other noises. Encountering fresh tracks finally, Dave

leaned from his saddle and studied them. What he saw caused him to

push forward with no diminution of stealth.



He had gone perhaps half a mile when Bessie Belle raised her head,

and he noted that her nostrils were working sensitively. A few

yards farther on Law fancied that he could detect the smell of a

wood fire. Almost without a signal from him the mare halted in her

tracks until he had satisfied himself. Still farther along they

came to a place where the brush was low, and there, rising through

the tree-tops beyond, they saw a wavering plume of blue smoke.



The Ranger rode into sight of the branding-fire with his

Winchester across his saddle-horn and his thumb upon the hammer;

what followed came with almost the blinding suddenness of a

lightning crash, though afterward the events of that crowded

moment lingered as a clear-cut memory. First there was the picture

of a sandy glade in the center of which burned a fire with

branding-irons in it, and a spotted calf tied to a tree, but

otherwise no sign of life. Then, without warning, Bessie Belle

threw up her head in that characteristic trick of hers, and

simultaneously Dave saw a figure rise out of the grass at his left

with rifle leveled. The Ranger remembered afterward the odd

foreshortening of the weapon and the crooked twist of the face

behind it. With the first jerk of his horse's head his own gun had

leaped to his shoulder--he was not conscious of having willed it

to do so--and even as he pressed the trigger he beheld a jet of

smoke spurt from the muzzle aimed at him. With the kick of his

carbine he felt Bessie Belle give way--it seemed to Dave that he

shot while she was sinking. The next instant his feet, still in

the stirrups, were on the ground and his horse lay between them,

motionless. That nervous fling of her head had saved Dave's life,

for the rustler's bullet had shattered her skull in its flight,

and she lay prone, with scarcely a muscular twitch, so sudden had

been her end. The breath escaped slowly from her lungs; it was as

if she heaved a lingering sigh; one leg contracted and then

relaxed.



For a moment the Ranger was dazed. He stood staring down at his

pet; then the truth engulfed him. He realized that he had ridden

her to her death, and at the thought he became like a woman bereft

of her child, like a lover who had seen his sweetheart slain.



A shout--it was a hoarse, inarticulate cry; a swift, maddened

scrutiny that searched the sodden scene of the ambush; then he was

down beside the mare, calling her name heartbrokenly, his arms

around her neck, his face against her warm, wet, velvet hide.



Law knew that two men had entered the thicket, and therefore one

still remained to be reckoned with, but he gave no thought to

that. Nor did he rise to look after the grotesquely huddled figure

that had been a cattle thief only a moment before--both he and his

assailant had been too close to miss. From the corner of his eye

he could see a pair of boot-soles staring at him out of the grass,

and they told him there was no need for investigation. Near the

body he heard a calf stirring, but he let it struggle.



Bessie Belle's bright eyes were glazing; she did not hear her

lover's voice. Her muzzle, softer than any satin, was loose, her

lips would never twitch with that clumsy, quivering caress which

pleased her master so. One front hoof, washed as clean as agate,

was awkwardly bent under her, the other had plowed a furrow in the

soft earth as she sank, and against this leg her head lay tipped.



Don Ricardo and his son burst out of the brush from opposite

directions almost at the same moment, to find the Ranger with his

face buried in his horse's mane.



"Caramba! What is this?" The old man flung himself from the saddle

and came running. "You are injured?"



Pedro, too, bent over the officer, his brown face pale with

apprehension. "Mother of God!" breathed the latter. "It was a wild

thing to do, to ride alone---"



"I'm all right," Law said, rising stiffly, whereupon both Mexicans

voiced their relief.



"The saints be praised!"



"Si! What happened? There was a shot! Did you see nothing?"



Law jerked his head in the direction of the fallen man at his

back, and Pedro uttered a loud cry.



"Look!" Father and son ran through the grass, then recoiled and

broke into a jargon of oaths and exclamations.



Law followed them with his eyes. "Is he dead?" he inquired,

coldly.



"God! Yes."



"Right in the mouth! The fellow was in hell before he realized

it."



"See! It is as we thought, Pedro; one of Lewis's! Tse! Tse! Tse!

What a sight!"



"Who is he?" queried the officer.



"Pino Garza, one of the worst!" chimed the two Guzmans.



Ricardo was dancing in his excitement. "I told you that Lewis knew

something. The other one got past me, but he rode like the devil,

and I cannot shoot like--this."



"Wait!" exclaimed Pedro. "This is beyond my understanding. I heard

but one shot from here, then after an instant my father's gun. And

yet here is a dead horse and a dead man."



"This fellow and I fired at about the same instant," Dave

explained, but even when he had related the history of the

encounter his companions could scarcely believe that such quick

shooting was possible.



It was difficult to secure a connected story from Ricardo, but he

finally made it plain that at the first report the other thief had

fled, exposing himself only long enough for the old man to take a

quick shot in his direction. Ricardo had missed, and the miscreant

was doubtless well away by this time. He had ridden a sorrel

horse, that was all Ricardo could remember.



Law looked only briefly at the gruesome results of his

marksmanship, then he turned back to the body of his beloved mare.

Ricardo noticed at length that he was crying; as the Ranger knelt

beside the dead thoroughbred the old Mexican whispered to his son:



"Valgame Dios! This is a strange fellow. He weeps like a woman. He

must have loved that horse as a man loves his wife. Who can

understand these Gringos?" After a time he approached cautiously

and inquired: "What shall we do with this hombre, senor? Pedro has

found his horse."



Law roused himself. With his own hands he gently removed Bessie

Belle's saddle, bridle, and blanket, then he gave his orders.



"I'll take your horse, Ricardo, and you take--that fellow's. Get a

wagon and move him to Jonesville."



"And you?"



"I'm going to follow that man on the sorrel."



The dead man's saddle was left beside the body; then when the

exchange of mounts had been effected and all was ready, Law made a

request that amazed both father and son.



"If I'm not back by morning, I want you to bury my mare." His

voice broke; he turned away his face. "Bury her deep, Ricardo, so-

-the coyotes can't dig her up; right here where she fell. I'll be

back to see that it's done right. Understand?"



"Bueno! I understand perfectly. She was a pretty horse. She was

your--bonita, eh? Well, you have a big heart, senor, as a brave

man should have. Everything shall be done as you wish; I give you



my hand on it." Ricardo reached down and gripped Law's palm. "We

will name our pasture for her, too, because it is plain you loved

her dearly. So, then, until to-morrow."



Law watched his two friends ride away, then he wiped his

Winchester and saw to his cinch. This done he raised Bessie

Belle's head and kissed the lip that had so often explored his

palm for sugar. With a miserable ache in his throat he mounted and

rode off to pick up the trail of the man on the sorrel pony.



Fortunately this was not difficult, for the tracks of a running

horse are plain in soft ground. Finding where his quarry had

broken cover, Law set out at a lope.



The fellow had ridden in a wide semicircle at first, then, finding

he was not pursued, he had slackened pace, and, in consequence,

the signs became more difficult to follow. They seemed to lead in

the direction of Las Palmas, which Dave judged must be fully

twelve miles away, and when they continued to maintain this course

the Ranger became doubly interested. Could it be, he asked

himself, that his quarry would have the audacity to ride to the

Austin headquarters? If so, his identification promised to become

easy, for a man on a sorrel cow-pony was more than likely to be

observed. Perhaps he thought himself secure and counted upon the

assistance of some friend or confederate among the Las Palmas

ranch-hands in case of pursuit. That seemed not unreasonable,

particularly inasmuch as he could have no suspicion that it was a

Ranger who was on his trail.



Dave lost the hoof-prints for a time, but picked them up again at

the pasture gate a few miles farther on, and was able to trace

them far enough to assure himself that his quarry was indeed

headed for the Austin house and had no intention of swinging

southward toward the Lewis headquarters.



By this time the rain had done its work, and to follow the tracks

became a matter of guesswork. Night was coming on also, and Dave

realized that at this rate darkness would find him far from his

goal. Therefore he risked his own interpretation of the rider's

intent and pushed on without pausing to search out the trail step

by step. At the second gate the signs indicated that his man was

little more than an hour ahead of him.



The prospect of again seeing the ruddy-haired mistress of Las

Palmas stirred Law more deeply than he cared to admit. Alaire

Austin had been seldom out of his thoughts since their first

meeting, for, after the fashion of men cut off from human society,

he was subject to insistent fancies. Dave had many times lived

over those incidents at the water-hole, and for the life of him he

could not credit the common stories of Alaire's coldness. To him,

at least, she had appeared very human, and after they had once

become acquainted she had been unaffected and friendly.



Since that meeting Dave had picked up considerable information

about the object of his interest, and although much of this was

palpably false, it had served to make her a still more romantic

figure in his eyes. Alaire now seemed to be a sort of superwoman,

and the fact that she was his friend, that something deep within

her had answered to him, afforded him a keen satisfaction, the

greater, perhaps, because of his surprise that it could be go.

Nevertheless, he was uncomfortably aware that she had a husband.

Not only so, but the sharp contrast in their positions was

disagreeable to contemplate; she was unbelievably rich, and a

person of influence in the state, while he had nothing except his

health, his saddle, and his horse---



With a desperate pang Law realized that now he had no horse.

Bessie Belle, his best beloved, lay cold and wet back yonder in

the weeping mesquite. He found several cubes of sugar in his

pocket, and with an oath flung them from him. Don Ricardo's horse

seemed stiff-gaited and stubborn.



Dave remembered how Mrs. Austin had admired the mare. No doubt she

would grieve at the fate that had befallen her, and that would

give them something to talk about. His own escape would interest

her, too, and--Law realized, not without some natural

gratification, that he would appear to her as a sort of hero.



The mist and an early dusk prevented him from seeing Las Palmas

itself until he was well in among the irrigated fields. A few

moments later when he rode up to the out-buildings he encountered

a middle-aged Mexican who proved to be Benito Gonzalez, the range

boss.



Dave made himself known, and Benito answered his questions with

apparent honesty. No, he had seen nothing of a sorrel horse or a

strange rider, but he had just come in himself. Doubtless they

could learn more from Juan, the horse-wrangler, who was somewhere

about.



Juan was finally found, but he proved strangely recalcitrant. At

first he knew nothing, though after some questioning he admitted

the possibility that he had seen a horse of the description given,

but was not sure. More pressure brought forth the reluctant

admission that the possibility was almost a certainty.



"What horse was it?" Benito inquired; but the lad was non-

committal. Probably it belonged to some stranger. Juan could not

recollect just where or when he had seen the pony, and he was

certain he had not laid eyes upon the owner.



"Devil take the boy! He's half-witted," Benito growled.



But Dave changed his tactics. "Oiga!" he said, sternly. "Do you

want to go to jail?" Juan had no such desire. "Then tell the

truth. Was the horse branded?"



"Yes."



"With what brand?"



Juan had not noticed.



"With the 'K.T.' perhaps?" That was the Lewis brand.



"Perhaps!"



"Where is it now?"



Juan insolently declared that he didn't know and didn't care.



"Oh, you don't, eh?" Law reached for the boy and shook him until

he yelled. "You will make a nice little prisoner, Juanito, and we

shall find a way to make you speak."



Gonzalez was inclined to resent such high-handed treatment of his

underling, but respect for the Rangers was deep-rooted, and Juan's

behavior was inexplicable.



At last the horse-boy confessed. He had seen both horse and rider,

but knew neither. Mr. Austin and the stranger had arrived

together, and the latter had gone on. That was the truth.



"Bueno!" Law released his prisoner, who slunk away rubbing his

shoulder. "Now, Benito, we will find Mr. Austin."



A voice answered from the dusk: "He won't take much finding," and

Ed Austin himself emerged from the stable door. "Well, what do you

want?" he asked.



"You are Mr. Austin, I reckon?"



"I am. What d'you mean by abusing my help?" The master of Las

Palmas approached so near that his threatening scowl was visible.

"I don't allow strangers to prowl around my premises."



Amazed at this hostile greeting, Law explained in a word the

reason for his presence.



"I don't know anything about your man. What d'you want him for,

and who are you?"



Dave introduced himself. "I want him for stealing Guzman calves. I

trailed him from where he and his partner cut into your south

pasture."



Benito stirred and muttered an oath, but Austin was unmoved. "I

reckon you must be a bad trailer," he laughed. "We've got no

thieves here. What makes you think Guzman lost any calves?"



Dave's temper, never too well controlled at best, began to rise.

He could not imagine why a person of Ed Austin's standing should

behave in this extraordinary manner, unless perhaps he was drunk.



"Well, I saw the calves, and I left the fellow that was branding

them with a wet saddle-blanket over his face."



"Eh? What's that?" Austin started, and Gonzalez uttered a

smothered exclamation. "You killed him? He's dead?"



"Dead enough to skin. I caught him with his irons in the fire and

the calves necked up in your pasture. Now I want his companero."



"I--hope you don't think we know anything about him," Ed

protested.



"Where's that man on the sorrel horse?"



Austin turned away with a shrug.



"You rode in with him," Dave persisted.



Ed wheeled quickly. "How do you know I did?"



"Your boy saw you."



The ranchman's voice was harsh as he said: "Look here, my friend,

you're on the wrong track. The fellow I was with had nothing to do

with this affair. Would you know your man? Did you get a look at

him?"



"No. But I reckon Don Ricardo could tell his horse."



"Humph!" Austin grunted, disagreeably. "So just for that you come

prowling around threatening my help, eh? Trying to frame up a

case, maybe? Well, it don't go. I was out with one of Tad Lewis's

men."



"What was his name?" Dave managed to inquire.



"Urbina. He had a sorrel under him, but there are thousands of

sorrel horses."



"What time did you meet him?"



"I met him at noon and--I've been with him ever since. So you see

you're wrong. I presume your man doubled back and is laughing at

you."



Law's first bewilderment had given place to a black rage; for the

moment he was in danger of disregarding the reason for "Young

Ed's" incivility and giving free rein to his passion, but he

checked himself in time.



"Would you mind telling me what you and this Urbina were doing?"

he inquired, harshly.



Austin laughed mockingly. "That's my business." said he.



Dave moistened his lips. He hitched his shoulders nervously. He

was astonished at his own self-control, though the certainty that

Austin was drunk helped him to steady himself. Nevertheless, he

dared not trust himself to speak.



Construing this silence as an acknowledgment of defeat, Ed turned

to go. Some tardy sense of duty, however, prompted him to fling

back, carelessly:



"I suppose you've come a good ways. If you're hungry, Benito will

show you the way to the kitchen." Then he walked away into the

darkness, followed by the shocked gaze of his range boss.



Benito roused himself from his amazement to say, warmly: "Si,

compadre. You will enjoy a cup of hot coffee."



But Law ground out fiercely: "I'm not used to kitchen hand-outs. I

reckon I can chew my bridle-reins if I get too hungry." Walking to

his horse, he vaulted into the saddle.



Benito laid a hand upon his thigh and apologized. "Senor Ed is a

strange man. He is often like this, lately. You understand me?

Will you come to my house for supper?"



"Thank you, but I think I'll ride on to Tad Lewis's and see

Urbina."



At this the Mexican shook his head as if apprehensive of the

result, but he said nothing more.



Law hesitated as he was about to spur out of the yard. "By the

way," he ventured, "you needn't mention this to Mrs. Austin."



"She is not here," Gonzalez told him. "She has gone to La Feria to

see about her affairs. She would not permit of this occurrence if

she were at home. She is a very fine lady."



"Yes. Good night, Benito."



"Good night, senor."



When the Ranger had gone, Gonzalez walked slowly toward his house

with his head bowed thoughtfully.



"It is very strange," he muttered. "How could Don Eduardo have met

this Garza at noon when, with my own eyes, I saw him ride away

from Las Palmas at three o'clock in the afternoon? It is very

strange."





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