The Rodeo





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.





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