An Evening At Las Palmas





Although the lower counties of southwest Texas are flat and badly

watered, they possess a rich soil. They are favored, too, by a

kindly climate, subtropic in its mildness. The days are long and

bright and breezy, while night brings a drenching dew that keeps

the grasses green. Of late years there have been few of those

distressing droughts that gave this part of the state an evil

reputation, and there has been a corresponding increase in

prosperity. The Rio Grande, jaundiced, erratic as an invalid,

wrings its saffron blood from the clay bluffs and gravel canons of

the hill country, but near its estuary winds quietly through a low

coastal plain which the very impurities of that blood have

richened. Here the river's banks are smothered in thickets of

huisache, ebony, mesquite, oak, and alamo.



Railroads, those vitalizing nerve-fibers of commerce, are so

scarce along this division of the border that even in this day

when we boast, or lament, that we no longer have a frontier, there

remain in Texas sections larger than some of our Eastern states

which hear the sound of iron wheels only on their boundaries. To

travel from Brownsville north along the international line one

must, for several hundred miles, avail oneself of horses, mules,

or motor-cars, since rail transportation is almost lacking. And on

his way the traveler will traverse whole counties where the houses

are jacals, where English is a foreign tongue, and where peons

plow their fields with crooked sticks as did the ancient

Egyptians.



That part of the state which lies below the Nueces River was for a

time disputed territory, and long after Texans had given their

lives to drive the Eagle of Mexico across the Rio Grande much of

it remained a forbidden land. Even to-day it is alien. It is a

part of our Southland, but a South different to any other that we

have. Within it there are no blacks, and yet the whites number but

one in twenty. The rest are swarthy, black-haired men who speak

the Spanish tongue and whose citizenship is mostly a matter of

form.



The stockmen, pushing ahead of the nesters and the tillers of the

soil, were the first to invade the lower Rio Grande, and among

these "Old Ed" Austin was a pioneer. Out of the unmapped prairie

he had hewed a foothold, and there, among surroundings as Mexican

as Mexico, he had laid the beginnings of his fortune.



Of "Old Ed's" early life strange stories are told; like the other

cattle barons, he was hungry for land and took it where or how he

could. There are tales of fertile sections bought for ten cents an

acre, tales of Mexican ranchers dispossessed by mortgage, by

monte, or by any means that came to hand; stories even of some,

more stubborn than the rest, who refused to feed the Austin greed

for land, and who remained on their farms to feed the buzzards

instead. Those were crude old days; the pioneers who pushed their

herds into the far pastures were lawless fellows, ruthless,

acquisitive, mastered by the empire-builder's urge for acres and

still more acres. They were the Reclaimers, the men who seized and

held, and then seized more, concerning themselves little or not at

all with the moral law as applicable to both Mexican and white,

and leaving it to the second generation to justify their acts, if

ever justification were required.



As other ranches grew under the hands of such unregenerate owners,

so also under "Old Ed" Austin's management did Las Palnaas

increase and prosper. The estate took its name from a natural

grove of palms in which the house was built; it comprised an

expanse of rich river-land backed by miles of range where "Box A"

cattle lived and bred. In his later years the old man sold much

land, and some he leased; but when he handed Las Palmas to his

son, "Young Ed," as a wedding gift, the ranch still remained a

property to be proud of, and one that was known far and wide for

its size and richness. Leaving his boy to work out of it a fortune

for himself and his bride, the father retired to San Antonio,

whither the friends and cronies of his early days were drifting.

There he settled down and proceeded to finish his allotted span

exactly as suited him best. The rancher's ideal of an agreeable

old age comprised three important items--to wit, complete leisure,

unlimited freedom of speech, and two pints of rye whisky daily. He

enjoyed them all impartially, until, about a year before this

story opens, he died profanely and comfortably. He had a big

funeral, and was sincerely mourned by a coterie of gouty old

Indian-fighters.



Las Palmas had changed greatly since Austin, senior, painfully

scrawled his slanting signature to the deed. It was a different

ranch now to what the old man had known; indeed, it was doubtful

if he would have recognized it, for even the house was new.



Alaire had some such thought in mind as she rode up to the gate on

the afternoon following her departure from the water-hole, and she

felt a thrill of pride at the acres of sprouting corn, the dense

green fields of alfalfa so nicely fitted between their fences.

They were like clean, green squares of matting spread for the feet

of summer.



A Mexican boy came running to care for her horse, a Mexican woman

greeted her as she entered the wide, cool hall and went to her

room. Alaire had ridden far. Part of the night had been spent at

the Balli goat-ranch, the remainder of the journey had been hot

and dusty, and even yet she was not wholly recovered from her

experience of the outward trip.



The house servants at Las Palmas were, on the whole, well trained,

and Mrs. Austin's periodic absences excited no comment; in the

present instance, Dolores fixed a bath and laid out clean clothes

with no more than a running accompaniment of chatter concerned

with household affairs. Dolores, indeed, was superior to the

ordinary servant; she was a woman of some managerial ability, and

she combined the duties of personal maid with those of

housekeeper. She was a great gossip, and possessed such a talent

for gaining information that through her husband, Benito, the

range boss, she was able to keep her mistress in fairly intimate

touch with ranch matters.



Alaire, however, was at this moment in no mood to resume the

tiresome details of management; she quickly dismissed her servitor

and proceeded to revel in the luxury of a cool bath, after which

she took a nap. Later, as she leisurely dressed herself, she

acknowledged that it was good to feel the physical comforts of her

own house, even though her home-coming gave her no especial joy.

She made it a religious practice to dress for dinner, regardless

of Ed's presence, though often for weeks at a time she sat in

solitary state, presiding over an empty table. Nevertheless, she

kept to her custom, for not only did the formality help her to

retain her own self-respect, but it had its influence upon the

servants. Without companionship one needs to be ever upon guard to

retain the nice refinements of gentle breeding, and any one who

has exercised authority in savage countries soon learns the

importance of leaving unbridged the gulf of color and of class.



But Alaire looked forward to no lonely dinner to-night, for Ed was

at home. It was with a grave preoccupation that she made herself

ready to meet him.



Dolores bustled in for a second time and straightway launched

herself into a tirade against Juan, the horse-boy.



"Devil take me if there was ever such a shameless fellow," she

cried, angrily. "He delights in tormenting me, and--Dios!--he is

lazier than a snake. Work? Bah! He abhors it. All day long he

snaps his revolver and pretends to be a bandido, and when he is

not risking bell's fire in that way he is whirling his riata and

jumping through it. Useless capers! He ropes the dog, he ropes the

rose-bushes, he ropes fat Victoria, the cook, carrying a huge bowl

of hot water to scald the ants' nest. Victoria's stomach is boiled

red altogether, and so painful that when she comes near the stove

she curses in a way to chill your blood. What does he do this

morning but fling his wicked loop over a calf's head and break off

one of its little horns. It was terrible; but Senor Austin only

laughed and told him he was a fine vaquero."



"Has Mr. Austin been here all the time?"



"Yes."



"Has he--drunk much?"



"Um-m. No more than common. He is on the gallery now with his

cocktails."



"He knows I am at home?"



"I told him."



Alaire went on dressing. After a little she asked: "Has Benito

finished branding the calves in the south pasture?"



"He finished yesterday and sent the remuda to the Six Mile. Jose

Sanchez will have completed the rodeo by this afternoon. Benito

rode in last night to see you."



"By the way, you know Jose's cousin, Panfilo?"



"Si."



"Why did he leave Las Palmas?"



Dolores hesitated so long that her mistress turned upon her with a

look of sharp inquiry.



"He went to La Feria, senora." Then, in a lowered tone: "Mr.

Austin ordered it. Suddenly, without warning, he sent him away,

though Panfilo did not wish to go, Benito told me all about it."



"Why was he transferred? Come! What ails your tongue, Dolores?"



"Well, I keep my eyes open and my ears, too. I am no fool--"

Dolores paused doubtfully.



"Yes, yes!"



Dolores drew closer. "Rosa Morales--you know the girl? Her father

works the big pump-engine at the river. Well, he is not above

anything, that man; not above selling his own flesh and blood, and

the girl is no better. She thinks about nothing except men, and

she attends all the bailes for miles around, on both sides of the

river. Panfilo loved her; he was mad about her. That's why he came

here to work."



"They were engaged, were they not?"



"Truly. And Panfilo was jealous of any man who looked at Rosa. Now

you can understand why--he was sent away." Dolores's sharp eyes

narrowed meaningly. "Senor Ed has been riding toward the river

every day, lately. Panfilo was furious, so--"



"I see! That is all I care to hear." Alone, Alaire stood

motionless for some time, her face fixed, her eyes unseeing; but

later, when she met her husband in the dining-room, her greeting

was no less civil than usual.



Ed acknowledged his wife's entrance with a careless nod, but did

not trouble to remove his hands from his pockets. As he seated

himself heavily at the table and with unsteady fingers shook the

folds from his napkin, he said:



"You stayed longer than you intended. Um-m--you were gone three

days, weren't you?"



"Four days," Alaire told him, realizing with a little inward start

how very far apart she and Ed had drifted. She looked at him

curiously for an instant, wondering if he really could be her

husband, or--if he were not some peculiarly disagreeable stranger.



Ed had been a handsome boy, but maturity had vitiated his good

looks. He was growing fat from drink and soft from idleness; his

face was too full, his eyes too sluggish; there was an unhealthy

redness in his cheeks. In contrast to his wife's semi-formal

dress, he was unkempt--unshaven and soiled. He wore spurred boots

and a soft shirt; his nails were grimy. When in the city he

contrived to garb himself immaculately; he was in fact something

of a dandy; but at home he was a sloven, and openly reveled in a

freedom of speech and a coarseness of manner that were sad trials

to Alaire. His preparations for dinner this evening had been

characteristically simple; he had drunk three dry cocktails and

flung his sombrero into a corner.



"I've been busy while you were gone," he announced. "Been down to

the pump-house every day laying that new intake. It was a nasty

job, too. I had Morales barbecue a cabrito for my lunch, and it

was good, but I'm hungry again." Austin attacked his meal with an

enthusiasm strange in him, for of late his appetite had grown as

errant as his habits. Ed boasted, in his clubs, that he was an

outdoor man, and he was wont to tell his friends that the rough

life was the life for him; but as a matter of fact he spent much

more time in San Antonio than he did at home, and each of his

sojourns at Las Palmas was devoted principally to sobering up from

his last visit to the city and to preparing for another. Nor was

he always sober even in his own house; Ed was a heavy and a

constant drinker at all times. What little exercise he took was

upon the back of a horse, and, as no one knew better than his

wife, the physical powers he once had were rapidly deteriorating.



By and by he inquired, vaguely: "Let's see, ... Where did you go

this time?"



"I went up to look over that Ygnacio tract."



"Oh yes. How did you find it?"



"Not very promising. It needs a lot of wells."



"I haven't been out that way since I was a boy. Think you'll lease

it?"



"I don't know. I must find some place for those La Feria cattle."



Austin shook his head. "Better leave 'em where they are, until the

rebels take that country. I stand mighty well with them."



"That's the trouble," Alaire told him. "You stand too well--so

well that I want to get my stock out of Federal territory as soon

as possible."



Ed shrugged carelessly. "Suit yourself; they're your cows."



The meal went on with a desultory flow of small talk, during which

the husband indulged his thirst freely. Alaire told him about the

accident to her horse and the unpleasant ordeal she had suffered

in the mesquite.



"Lucky you found somebody at the water-hole," Ed commented. "Who

was this Ranger? Never heard of the fellow," he commented on the

name. "The Rangers are nothing like they used to be."



"This fellow would do credit to any organization." As Alaire

described how expeditiously Law had made his arrest and handled

his man, her husband showed interest.



"Nicolas Anto, eh?" said he, "Who was his companero?"



"Panfilo Sanchez."



Ed started. "That's strange! They must have met accidentally."



"So they both declared. Why did you let Panfilo go?"



"We didn't need him here, and he was too good a man to lose, so--"

Ed found his wife's eyes fixed upon him, and dropped his own. "I

knew you were short-handed at La Feria." There was an interval of

silence, then Ed exclaimed, testily, "What are you looking at?"



"I wondered what you'd say."



"Eh? Can't I fire a man without a long-winded explanation?"

Something in Alaire's expression warned him of her suspicion;

therefore he took refuge behind an assumption of anger. "My God!

Don't I have a word to say about my own ranch? Just because I've

let you run things to suit yourself--"



"Wait! We had our understanding." Alaire's voice was low and

vibrant. "It was my payment for living with you, and you know it.

You gave me the reins to Las Palmas so that I'd have something to

do, something to live for and think about, except--your actions.

The ranch has doubled in value, every penny is accounted for, and

you have more money to spend on yourself than ever before. You

have no reason to complain."



Austin crushed his napkin into a ball and flung it from him; with

a scowl he shoved himself back from the table.



"It was an idiotic arrangement, just the same. I agreed because I

was sick. Dad thought I was all shot to pieces. But I'm all right

now and able to run my own business."



"Nevertheless, it was a bargain, and it will stand. If your father

were alive he'd make you live up to it."



"Hell! You talk as if I were a child," shouted her husband; and

his plump face was apoplectic with rage. "The title is in my name.

How could he make me do anything?"



"Nobody could force you," his wife said, quietly. "You are still

enough of a man to keep your word, I believe, so long as I observe

my part of our bargain?"



Ed, slightly mollified, agreed. "Of course I am; I never welched.

But I won't be treated as an incompetent, and I'm tired of these

eternal wrangles and jangles."



"You HAVE welched."



"Eh?" Austin frowned belligerently.



"You agreed to go away when you felt your appetite coming on, and

you promised to live clean, at least around home."



"Well?"



"Have you done it?"



"Certainly. I never said I'd cut out the booze entirely."



"What about your carousals at Brownsville?"



Austin subsided sullenly. "Other men have got full in

Brownsville."



"No doubt. But you made a scandal. You have been seen with--women,

in a good many places where we are known."



"Bah! There's nothing to it."



Alaire went on in a lifeless tone that covered the seething

emotions within her. "I never inquire into your actions at San

Antonio or other large cities, although of course I have ears and

I can't help hearing about them; but these border towns are home

to us, and people know me. I won't be humiliated more than I am;

public pity is--hard enough to bear. I've about reached the

breaking-point."



"Indeed?" Austin leaned forward, his eyes inflamed. His tone was

raised, heedless of possible eavesdroppers. "Then why don't you

end it? Why don't you divorce me? God knows I never see anything

of you. You have your part of the house and I have mine; all we

share in common is meal-hours, and--and a mail address. You're

about as much my wife as Dolores is."



Alaire turned upon him eyes dark with misery. "You know why I

don't divorce you. No, Ed, we're going to live out our agreement,

and these Brownsville episodes are going to cease." Her lips

whitened. "So are your visits to the pumping-station."



"What do you mean by that?"



"You transferred Panfilo because he was growing jealous of you and

Rosa."



Ed burst into sudden laughter. "Good Lord! There's no harm in a

little flirtation. Rosa's a pretty girl."



His wife uttered a breathless, smothered exclamation; her hands,

as they lay on the table-cloth, were tightly clenched. "She's your

tenant--almost your servant. What kind of a man are you? Haven't

you any decency left?"



"Say! Go easy! I guess I'm no different to most men." Austin's

unpleasant laughter had been succeeded by a still more unpleasant

scowl. "I have to do SOMETHING. It's dead enough around here--"



"You must stop going there."



"Humph! I notice YOU go where YOU please. Rosa and I never spent a

night together in the chaparral--"



"Ed!" Alaire's exclamation was like the snap of a whip. She rose

and faced her husband, quivering as if the lash had stung her

flesh.



"That went home, eh? Well, I'm no fool! I've seen something of the

world, and I've found that women are about like men. I'd like to

have a look at this David Law, this gunman, this Handsome Harry

who waits at water-holes for ladies in distress." Ed ignored his

wife's outflung hand, and continued, mockingly: "I'll bet he's all

that's manly and splendid, everything that I'm NOT."



"You'd--better stop," gasped the woman. "I can't stand

everything."



"So? Well, neither can I."



"After--this, I think you'd better go--to San Antonio. Maybe I'll

forget before you come back."



To this "Young Ed" agreed quickly enough. "Good!" said he. "That

suits me. It's hell around Las Palmas, anyhow, and I'll at least

get a little peace at my club." He glowered after his wife as she

left the room. Then, still scowling, he lurched out to the gallery

where the breeze was blowing, and flung himself into a chair.





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