The Water-hole





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.





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