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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHeart Of The Sunset - Chapter 12. Longorio Makes Bold
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Heart Of The Sunset - Chapter 12. Longorio Makes Bold Post by :ninja1023 Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :652

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Heart Of The Sunset - Chapter 12. Longorio Makes Bold

CHAPTER XII. LONGORIO MAKES BOLD

Upon her arrival at La Feria Alaire discovered that the Federal depredations had been even greater than she had feared. Not only had the soldiers taken a great many head of cattle, but they had practically cleared the ranch of horses, leaving scarcely enough with which to carry on the work.

Alaire's hacienda comprised a hundred thousand acres or more-- lacking a thorough survey, she had never determined exactly how much land she really owned--and the property fronted upon a stream of water. In any other country it would have been a garden of riches, but agriculture was well-nigh impossible in northern Mexico. For several years now the instability of the government had precluded any plan of development, and, in consequence, the fields were out of cultivation and cattle grazed over the moist bottom lands, belly deep in grass. The entire ranch had been given over to pasture, and even now, after Alaire had sold off much of her stock because of the war, the task of accurately counting what remained required a longer time than she had expected, and her visit lengthened.

However, life in the roomy, fortress-like adobe house was pleasant enough. Dolores saw to her mistress's wants, and the regular inhabitants of La Feria were always extravagantly glad to make their employer welcome. They were a simple, mirth-loving, industrious people, little concerned over the war, so long as they were unmolested, but obviously relieved to see Alaire because of their recent fright at the incursion of Longorio's troops.

In the work that now went forward Jose Sanchez took a prominent part. For once in his life he was a person of recognized importance. Not only was he the right hand of the owner of La Feria, but the favor of that redoubtable general, the hero of a hundred tales, rested upon his shoulders like a mantle. Jose's extravagant praises of the Federal commander, together with the daily presence of the military guard, forcibly brought home to the ranch-dwellers the fact that war was actually going on, and that Luis Longorio was indeed a man of flesh and blood, and no myth. This realization caused a ripple of excitement to stir the peons' placid lives.

And yet in the midst of his satisfaction Sanchez confessed to one trouble. He had expected to find his cousin, Panfilo, here, and the fact that nothing whatever had been heard from him filled him with great uneasiness. Of course he came to Alaire, who told him of seeing Panfilo at the water-hole on the day after her husband had discharged him; but that information gave Jose little comfort, since it proved nothing as to his cousin's present whereabouts. Alaire thought best not to tell him the full circumstances of that affair. Believing that Panfilo would turn up at La Feria in due time, she gave little heed to Jose's dark threats of vengeance for any injury to his relative.

The horse-breaker's concern increased as the days passed, and to the lieutenant and members of the guard he repeated his threats. Truly, he declared, if any evil had fallen upon his beloved cousin Panfilo, he, Jose, would exact a terrible reckoning, a revenge befitting a man of his character and a friend of Luis Longorio.

These soldiers, by the way, were something of a trial to Alaire, for they were ever in her way. She could not ride a mile over her own pastures without the whole martial squad following at her heels. Protest was unavailing; the lieutenant was mulishly stubborn. He had been ordered to keep the senora in sight at all times, so he said, and that ended the matter as far as he was concerned. His life and the lives of his six followers depended entirely upon her safety and happiness, for General Longorio was a man of his word.

Of course the lieutenant would not offend for the world--the object of his solicitude was at liberty to tread upon his worthless old carcass--but orders were orders, especially when they came from a certain source. He besought Alaire to exercise forbearance toward him, and, above all, to use the extremest caution in regard to her own well-being, for if aught befell her, if even a despicable rattlesnake should rise out of the grass to sting her--caramba! The teniente, in that case, would better destroy himself on the spot. Otherwise he would surely find himself, in a short time, with his back to a stone wall and his face to a firing-squad. That was the sort of man Longorio was.

The speaker wondered if Mrs. Austin really understood his chief's nature; how determined he was; how relentless he could be. General Longorio was a remarkable person. Opposition of any sort he could not brook. His discipline was rigorous and his punishments were severe; being utterly without fear himself, he insisted upon implicit obedience in others at whatever cost. For instance, during the battle of San Pedro, just south of here, a handful of Rebels had taken refuge in a small, one-roomed adobe house, where they resisted all efforts at dislodgment. Time and again the Federals had charged, only to meet a fire too murderous to face. The slaughter had been terrific. The lieutenant, veteran of many revolutions, vowed he had never seen a street so full of dead and wounded as the one in front of this house. Finally the soldiers had refused to advance again, and their captain had sent for a cannon. During the wait Longorio had ridden up.

"'Come! Make haste!' said he, 'That house obstructs my view.'"

Seeing that Alaire was deeply interested in this recital, the old lieutenant paused dramatically.

"Well, the capitan explained that an army was insufficient to take that house; that it meant death to all who approached. I was not present--God be praised!--but others told me what happened. General Longorio dismounted and embraced the capitan--he kissed him on the cheek, saying:

"'Adios, my dear good friend. I fear I have seen the last of you.'

"Then what? Senora, you would never guess." The speaker shook his head. "Longorio took two dynamite grenades, and, laughing like a boy, he ran forward before any one knew what he was about. It is nothing but the truth, senora, and he a general! This capitan loved him dearly, and so his bones turned to rope when the windows of that accursed house began to vomit fire and the dust began to fly. They say that the dead men in the street rose to their knees and crossed themselves--I only repeat what I was told by those who looked on. Anyhow, I have seen things quite as remarkable.

"Never was such courage, senora! God must have been moved to astonishment and admiration, for He diverted those bullets, every one. When our general came to the house he lit the fuses from his cigarette, then he cried, 'Viva Potosi!' and hurled one bomb to the roof; the other he flung through a window into the very faces of his enemies. Those Rebels were packed in there like goats in a corral, and they say such a screaming you never heard. Doubtless many of them died from sheer terror the rest were blown through each other. "The lieutenant breathed an admiring oath. "Truly, it must have been a superb spectacle."

"General Longorio must be very brave indeed," Alaire agreed.

"But wait! That is not all. After we had taken the town and destroyed what Rebel officers we found--"

"You mean--your prisoners?"

"Si. But there were only a few, and doubtless some of them would have died from their wounds. Well then, after that General Longorio called his old friend--that capitan--out before his troops and with his own hand he shot him. Then every fifth man among those who had refused to charge he ordered executed. It effected much good, I assure you."

For a moment Alaire and her companion rode in silence, but the teniente was not content with this praise of his leader.

"And yet General Longorio has another side to his character," he continued. "He can be as mild as the shyest senorita, and he possesses the most beautiful sentiments. Women are mad over him. But he is hard to please--strangely so. Truly, the lady who captivates his fancy may count herself fortunate." The old soldier turned in his saddle and, with a grace surprising in one of his rough appearance, removed his hat and swept Alaire a bow the unmistakable meaning of which caused her to start and to stammer something unintelligible.

Alaire was angry at the fellow's presumption, and vexed with herself for showing that she understood his insinuation. She spurred her horse into a gallop, leaving him to follow as he could.

It was absurd to take the man's word seriously; indeed, he probably believed he had paid her a compliment. Alaire assured herself that Longorio's attentions were inspired merely by a temporary extravagance of admiration, characteristic of his nationality. Doubtless he had forgotten all about her by this time. That, too, was characteristic of Latin men. Nevertheless, the possibility that she had perhaps stirred him more deeply than she believed was disturbing--one might easily learn to fear Longorio. As a suitor he would be quite as embarrassing, quite as- -dangerous as an enemy, if all reports were true.

Alaire tried to banish such ideas, but even in her own room she was not permitted entirely to forget, for Dolores echoed the teniente's sentiments.

In marked contrast to Jose Sanchez's high and confident spirits was the housekeeper's conviction of dire calamity. In the presence of these armed strangers she saw nothing but a menace, and considered herself and her mistress no more nor less than prisoners destined for a fate as horrible as that of the two beautiful sisters of whom she never tired of speaking. Longorio was a blood-thirsty beast, and he was saving them as prey for his first leisure moment--that was Dolores's belief. Abandoning all hope of ever seeing Las Palmas again, she gave herself up to thoughts of God and melancholy praises of her husband's virtues.

In spite of all this, however, Alaire welcomed the change in her daily life. Everything about La Feria was restfully un-American, from the house itself, with its bare walls and floors, its brilliantly flowering patio, and its primitive kitchen arrangements, to the black-shawled, barefooted Indian women and their naked children rolling in the dust. Even the timberless mountains that rose sheer from the westward plain into a tumbling purple-shadowed rampart were Mexican. La Feria was several miles from the railroad; therefore it could not have been more foreign had it lain in the very heart of Mexico rather than near the northern boundary.

In such surroundings, and in spite of faint misgivings, it was not strange that, after a few days, Alaire's unhappiness assumed a vaguely impersonal quality and that her life, for the moment, seemed not to be her own. Even the thought of her husband, Ed Austin, became indistinct and unreal. Then all too soon she realized that the purpose of her visit was accomplished and that she had no excuse for remaining longer. She was now armed with sufficient facts to make a definite demand upon the Federal government.

The lieutenant took charge of the return journey to the railroad, and the two women rode to the jingling accompaniment of metal trappings. When at last they were safely aboard the north-bound train, Alaire mildly teased Dolores about her recent timidity. But Dolores was not to be betrayed into premature rejoicing.

"Anything may happen at a moment's notice," she declared. "Something tells me that I am to meet a shocking fate. I can hear those ruffianly soldiers quarreling over me--it is what comes from good looks." Dolores mechanically smoothed the wrinkles from her dress and adjusted her hair. "Mark you! I shall kill myself first. I have made up my mind to that. But it is a great pity we were not born ugly."

Alaire could not forbear a smile, for she who thus resigned herself to the penalties of beauty had never been well favored, and age had destroyed what meager attractions she may have once possessed.

Dolores went on after a time. "My Benito will not long remain unmarried. He is like all men. More than once I have suspected him of making eyes at young women, and any girl in the country would marry him just for my fine silver coffee-pot and those spoons. There is my splendid silk mantilla, with fringe half as long as your arm, too. Oh, I have treasures enough!" She shook her head mournfully. "It is a mistake for a wife to lay up pretty things, since they are merely temptations to other women."

Alaire tried to reason her out of this mood. "Why should any one molest us? Who could wish us harm?" she asked.

"Ha! Did you see that general? He was like a drunken man in your presence; it was as if he had laid eyes upon the shining Madonna. I could hear his heart beating."

"Nonsense! In the first place, I am an old married woman."

Dolores sniffed. "Vaya! Old, indeed! What does he care for a husband? He only cares that you have long, bright hair, redder than rust, and eyes like blue flowers, and a skin like milk. An angel could not be so beautiful."

"Ah, Dolores, you flatterer! Seriously, though, don't you realize that we are Americans, and people of position? An injury to us would bring terrible consequences upon General Longorio's head. That is why he sent his soldiers with us."

"All the same," Dolores maintained stubbornly, "I wish I had brought that shawl and that silver coffee-pot with me."

The homeward journey was a repetition of the journey out; there were the same idle crowds, the same displays of filthy viands at the stopping-places, the same heat and dust and delays. Longorio's lieutenant hovered near, and Jose, as before, was news-gatherer. Hour after hour they crept toward the border, until at last they were again laid out on a siding for an indefinite wait.

The occasion for this was made plain when an engine drawing a single caboose appeared. Even before it had come to a pause a tall figure in spotless uniform leaped to the ground and strode to the waiting coaches. It was Luis Longorio. He waved a signal to the conductor, then swung aboard the north-bound train.

The general was all smiles as he came down the and bowed low over Alaire's hand.

Dolores gasped and stiffened in her seat like a woman of stone.

"God be praised! You are safe and well!" said the new-comer. "I have blamed myself for allowing you to take this abominable journey! I have been in torment lest something befall you. Every night I have prayed that you might be spared all harm. When I received word that you were coming I made all speed to meet you."

"Dolores and I are greatly in your debt," Alaire told him.

"But you stayed so long!"

"There was more work than I thought. General, you have ruined me."

Longorio was pained; his face became ineffably sad. "Please! I beg of you," he entreated. "I have arranged for reparation of that miserable mistake. You shall see what I have done. With your own eyes you shall read the furious correspondence I have carried on with the minister. Together you and I shall manage a settlement, and you will find that I am a friend indeed!"

"I hope so."

"Have I not proved it? Am I not ready to give you my life?" the general queried, earnestly. "Fix the damages at your own figure and I shall see that you receive justice. If the government will not pay, I will. I have means; I am not a poor man. All I possess would be too little to buy your happiness."

"You embarrass me. I'm afraid you don't realize what you say." Alaire remained cool under the man's protestations. "I have lost more than a thousand head of cattle."

"We shall say two, three thousand, and the government will pay," Longorio asserted, brazenly. "I will vouch for your figures, and no one will question them, for I am a man of honor."

"No! All I want--"

"It is done. Let us say no more about the affair. Senora, I have thought of you every hour; the duties that held me in Nuevo Pueblo were like irksome chains. I was in madness. I would have flown to La Feria but--I could not."

"My husband will thank you for your great courtesy to me," Alaire managed to say.

But the mention of husbands was not agreeable to one of Longorio's sensitiveness, and his face betrayed a hint of impatience.

"Yes, yes," he agreed, carelessly. "Senor Austin and I must know each other better and become friends."

"That is hardly possible at present. When the war is over--"

"Bah! This war is nothing. I go where I please. You would be surprised to greet me at Las Palmas some day soon, eh? When you tell your husband what a friend I am he would be glad to see me, would he not?"

"Why--of course. But surely you wouldn't dare--"

"And why not? Las Palmas is close to the river, and my troops are in Romero, directly opposite. Mexico is not at war with your country, and when I am in citizen's clothes I am merely an ordinary person. I have made inquiries, and they tell me Las Palmas is beautiful, heavenly, and that you are the one who transformed it. I believe them. You have the power to transform all things, even a man's heart and soul. No wonder you are called 'The Lone Star.' But wait. You will see how constantly I think of you." Longorio drew from his pocket several photographs of the Austin ranch-house.

"Where did you get those?" Alaire asked in astonishment.

"Ah! My secret. See! They are badly worn already, for I keep them next my bosom."

"We entertain very few guests at Las Palmas," she murmured, uncomfortably.

"I know. I know a great deal."

"It would scarcely be safe for you to call; the country is full of Candeleristas--"

"Cattle!" said the officer, with a careless shrug. "Did not that great poet Byron swim an ocean to see a lovely lady? Well, I, too, am a poet. I have beautiful fancies; songs of love run through my mind. Those Englishmen know nothing of passion. Your American men are cold. Only a Mexican can love. We have fire in our veins, senora."

To these perfervid protestations Dolores listened with growing fright; her eyes were wide and they were fixed hypnotically upon the speaker; she presented much the appearance of a rabbit charmed by a serpent. But to Longorio she did not exist; she was a chattel, a servant, and therefore devoid of soul or intelligence, or use beyond that of serving her mistress.

Thinking to put an end to these blandishments, Alaire undertook to return the general's ring, with the pretense that she considered it no more than a talisman loaned her for the time being. But it was a task to make Longorio accept it. He was shocked, offended, hurt; he declared the ring to be of no value; it was no more than a trifling evidence of his esteem. But Alaire was firm.

"Your customs are different to ours," she told him. "An American woman is not permitted to accept valuable presents, and this would cause disagreeable comment."

At such a thought the general's finest sensibilities were wounded, but nothing, it seemed, could permanently dampen his ardor, and he soon proceeded to press his attentions with even more vehemence than before. He had brought Alaire candies of American manufacture, Mexican sweetmeats of the finest variety, a beautiful silken shawl, and at midday the grizzled teniente came with a basket of lunch containing dainties and fruits and vacuum bottles with hot and cold drinks.

When invited to share the contents, the general was plainly overjoyed, but he was so enthralled by his companion's beauty that he could eat but little.

It was a most embarrassing situation. Longorio kept Alaire for ever upon the defensive, and it sorely taxed her ingenuity to hold the conversation in safe channels. As the journey proceeded it transpired that the man had made use of his opportunities to learn everything about her, even to her life with Ed. His information was extensive, and his deductions almost uncanny in their correctness. He told her about Austin's support of the Rebel cause and her own daily doings at Las Palmas; he intimated that her unhappiness was almost more than he could bear.

This intimate knowledge and sympathy he seemed to regard as a bond that somehow united them. He was no longer a new acquaintance, but a close and loyal friend whose regard was deathless.

Undoubtedly the man had a way with him. He impressed people, and his magnetism was potent. Moreover, he knew the knack of holding what ground he gained.

It was an odd, unreal ride, through the blazing heat of the long afternoon. Longorio cast off all pretense and openly laid siege to the red-haired woman's heart--all without offering her the smallest chance to rebuff him, the slightest ground for open resentment, so respectful and guarded were his advances. But he was forceful in his way, and the very intensity of his desires made him incapable of discouragement. So the duel progressed-- Alaire cool and unyielding, he warm, persistent, and tireless. He wove about her an influence as difficult to combat as the smothering folds of some flocculent robe or the strands of an invisible web, and no spider was ever more industrious.

When the train arrived at its destination his victim was well-nigh exhausted from the struggle. He helped her into a coach with the gentlest and gravest courtesy, and not until the vehicle rolled away did Alaire dare to relax. Through her fatigue she could still hear his soft farewell until the morrow, and realized that she had committed herself to his further assistance. His palms against hers had been warm, his adoring eyes had caressed her, but she did not care. All she wished now was to reach her hotel, and then her bed.

After a good night's rest, however, Alaire was able to smile at yesterday's adventure. Longorio did not bulk so large now; even these few hours had greatly diminished his importance, so that he appeared merely as an impulsive foreigner who had allowed a woman to turn his head. Alaire knew with what admiration even a moderately attractive American woman is greeted in Mexico, and she had no idea that this fellow had experienced anything more than a fleeting infatuation. Now that she had plainly shown her distaste for his outlaw emotions, and convinced him that they awoke in her no faintest response, she was confident that his frenzy would run its brief course and die. Meanwhile, it was not contrary to the standards of feminine ethics to take advantage of the impression she had made upon him and with his help push through a fair financial settlement of her loss.

Once back across the river, however, she discovered that there were obstacles to a prompt adjustment of her claim. The red tape of her own government was as nothing to that of Mexico. There were a thousand formalities, a myriad of maddening details to be observed, and they called for the services of an advocate, a notary, a jefe politico, a jefe de armas--officials without end. All of these worthies were patient and polite, but they displayed a malarial indifference to delay, and responsibility seemed to rest nowhere. During the day Alaire became bewildered, almost lost in the mazes of official procedure, and was half minded to telegraph for Judge Ellsworth. But that again meant delay, and she was beginning to long for home.

Longorio by no means shared her disappointment. On the contrary, he assured her they were making splendid progress, and he was delighted with her grasp of detail and her knowledge of business essentials. At his word all Nuevo Pueblo bowed and scraped to her, she was treated with impressive formality, and even the military guards at the various headquarters presented arms when she passed. The general's official business waited upon Alaire's convenience, and to spare her the necessity of the short ride back to American soil he arranged for her an elaborate luncheon in his quarters.

As on the day before, he assumed the privileges of a close friend, and treated his guest as a sort of fellow-conspirator working hand in hand with him for some holy cause.

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