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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesStarr, Of The Desert - Chapter 16. Starr Sees Too Little Or Too Much
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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 16. Starr Sees Too Little Or Too Much Post by :Allnewe Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :2765

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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 16. Starr Sees Too Little Or Too Much

CHAPTER SIXTEEN. STARR SEES TOO LITTLE OR TOO MUCH


Carefully skirting the ridge where Helen May had her goats; keeping always in the gulches and never once showing himself on high ground, Starr came after a while to a point where he could look up to the pinnacle behind Sunlight Basin, from the side opposite the point where he had wriggled away behind a bush. He left Rabbit hidden in a brush-choked arroyo that meandered away to the southwest, and began cautiously to climb.

Starr did not expect to come upon his man on the peak; indeed he would have been surprised to find the fellow still there. But that peak was as good as any for reconnoitering the surrounding country, was higher than any other within several miles, in fact. What he did hope was to pick up with his glasses the man's line of retreat after a deed he must believe successfully accomplished. And there might be some betraying sign there that would give him a clue.

There was always the possibility, however, that the fellow had lingered to see what took place after the supposed killing. He must believe that the girl who had been with Starr would take some action, and he might want to know to a certainty what that action was. So Starr went carefully, keeping behind boulders and rugged outcroppings and in the bottom of deep, water-worn washes when nothing else served. He did not think the fellow, even if he stayed on the peak, would be watching behind him, but Starr did not take any chances, and climbed rather slowly.

He reached the summit at the left of where the man had stood when he shot; very close to the spot where Helen May had stood and looked upon Vic and the goats and the country she abhorred. Starr saw her tracks there in a sheltered place beside a rock and knew that she had been up there, though in that dry soil he could not, of course, tell when. When that baked soil takes an imprint, it is apt to hold it for a long while unless rain or a real sand-storm blots it out.

He hid there for a few minutes, craning as much as he dared to see if there were any sign of the man he wanted. In a little he left that spot and crept, foot by foot, over to the cairn, the "sheepherder's monument," behind which the fellow had stood. There again he found the prints of Helen May's small, mountain boots, prints which he had come to know very well. And close to them, looking as though the two had stood together, were the larger, deeper tracks of a man.

Starr dared not rise and stand upright. He must keep always under cover from any chance spying from below. He could not, therefore, trace the footprints down the peak. But he got some idea of the man's direction when he left, and he knew, of course, where to find Helen May. He did not connect the two in his mind, beyond registering clearly in his memory the two sets of tracks.

He crept closer to the Basin side of the peak and looked down, following an impulse he did not try to analyze. Certainly he did not expect to see any one, unless it were Vic, so he had a little shock of surprise when he saw Helen May riding the pinto up past the spring, with a man walking beside her and glancing up frequently into her face. Starr was human; I have reminded you several times how perfectly human he was. He immediately disliked that man. When he heard faintly the tones of Helen May's laugh, he disliked the man more.

He got down, with his head and his arms--the left one was lame in the biceps--above a rock. He made sure that the sun had swung around so it would not shine on the lenses and betray him by any heliographic reflection, and focussed his glasses upon the two. He saw as well as heard Helen May laugh, and he scowled over it. But mostly he studied the man.

"All right for you, old boy," he muttered. "I don't know who the devil you are, but I don't like your looks." Which shows how human jealousy will prejudice a man.

He saw Vic throwing rocks at something which he judged was a snake, and he saw Helen May rein the pinto awkwardly around, "square herself for action," as Starr would have styled it, and fire. By her elation; artfully suppressed, by the very carelessness with which she shoved the gun in its holster, he knew that she had hit whatever she shot at. He caught the tones of Holman Sommers' voice praising her, and he hated the tones. He watched them come on up to the little house, where they disappeared at the end where the mesquite tree grew. Sitting in the shade there, talking, he guessed they were doing, and for some reason he resented it. He saw Vic lift a rattlesnake up by its tail, and heard him yell that it had six rattles, and the button was missing.

After that Starr turned his hack on the Basin and began to search scowlingly the plain. He tried to pull his mind away from Helen May and her visitor and to fix it upon the would-be assassin. He believed that the horseman he had seen earlier in the day might be the one, and he looked for him painstakingly, picking out all the draws, all the dry washes and arroyos of that vicinity. The man would keep under cover, of course, in making his getaway. He would not ride across a ridge if he could help it, any more than would Starr.

Even so, from that height Starr could look down into many of the deep places. In one of them he caught sight of a horseman picking his way carefully along the boulder-strewn bottom. The man's back was toward him, but the general look of him was Mexican. The horse was bay with a rusty black tail, but there were in New Mexico thousands of bay horses with black tails, so there was nothing gained there. The rider seemed to be making toward Medina's ranch, though that was only a guess, since the arroyo he was following led in that direction at that particular place. Later it took a sharp turn to the south, and the rider went out of sight before Starr got so much as a glimpse at his features.

He watched for a few minutes longer, sweeping his glasses slowly to right and left. He took another look down into the Basin and saw no one stirring, that being about the time when the plump sister was rolling up her fancy work and tapering off her conversation to the point of making her adieu. Starr did not watch long enough for his own peace of mind. Five more minutes would have brought the plump one into plain view with her brother and Helen May, and would have identified Holman Sommers as the escort of a lady caller. But those five minutes Starr spent in crawling back down the peak on the side farthest from the Basin, leaving Holman Sommers sticking in his mind with the unpleasant flavor of mystery.

He mounted Rabbit again and made a detour of several miles so that he might come up on the ridge behind Medina's without running any risk of crossing the trail of the men he wanted to watch. About two o'clock he stopped at a shallow, brackish stream and let Rabbit rest and feed for an hour while Starr himself climbed another rocky pinnacle and scanned the country between there and Medina's.

The gate that let one off the main road and into the winding trail which led to the house stood out in plain view at the mouth of a shallow draw. This was not the trail which led out from the home ranch toward San Bonito, where Starr had been going when he saw the track of the mysterious automobile, but the trail one would take in going from Medina's to Malpais. The ranch house itself stood back where the draw narrowed, but the yellow-brown trail ribboned back from the gate in plain view.

Here again Starr was fated to get a glimpse and no more. He focussed his glasses on the main road first; picked up the Medina branch to the gate, followed the trail on up the draw, and again he picked up a man riding a bay horse. And just as he was adjusting his lenses for a sharper clarity of vision, the horse trotted around a bend and disappeared from sight.

Starr swore, but that did not bring the man back down the trail. Starr was not at all sure that this was the same man he had seen in the draw, and he was not sure that either was the man who had shot at him. But roosting on that heat-blistered pinnacle swearing about the things he didn't know struck him as a profitless performance, so he climbed down, got into the saddle again, and rode on.

He reached the granite ridge back of Medina's about four o'clock in the afternoon. He was tired, for he had been going since daylight, and for a part of the time at least he had been going on foot, climbing the steep, rocky sides of peaks for the sake of what he might see from the top, and then climbing down again for sake of what some one else might see if he stayed too long. His high-heeled riding boots that Helen May so greatly admired were very good-looking and very comfortable when he had them stuck into stirrups to the heel. But they had never been built for walking. Therefore his feet ached abominably. And there was the heat, the searing, dry heat of midsummer in the desert country. He was dog tired, and he was depressed because he had not seemed able to accomplish anything with all his riding and all his scanning of the country.

He climbed slowly the last, brown granite ridge, the ridge behind Estan Medina's house. He would watch the place and see what was going on there. Then, he supposed he should go back and watch _Las Nuevas_, though his chief seemed to think that he had discovered enough there for their purposes. He had sent on the pamphlets, and he knew that when the time was right, _Las Nuevas would be muzzled with a postal law and, he hazarded, a seizure of their mail.

What he had to do now was to find the men who were working in conjunction with _Las Nuevas_; who were taking the active part in organizing and in controlling the Mexican Alliance. So far he had not hit upon the real leaders, and he knew it, and in his weariness was oppressed with a sense of failure. They might better have left him in Texas, he told himself glumly. They sure had drawn a blank when they drew him into the Secret Service, because he had accomplished about as much as a pup trying to run down a coyote.

A lizard scuttled out of his way, when he crawled between two boulders that would shield him from sight unless a man walked right up on him where he lay--and Starr did not fear that, because there were too many loose cobbles to roll and rattle; he knew, because he had been twice as long as he liked in getting to this point quietly. He took off his hat, telling himself morosely that you couldn't tell his head from a lump of granite anyway, when he had his hat off, and lifted his glasses to his aching eyes.

The Medina ranch was just showing signs of awakening after a siesta. Estan himself was pottering about the corral, and Luis, a boy about eighteen years old, was fooling with a colt in a small enclosure that had evidently been intended for a garden and had been permitted to grow up in weeds and grass instead.

After a while a peona came out and fed the chickens, and hunted through the sheds for eggs, which she carried in her apron. She stopped to watch Luis and the colt, and Luis coaxed her to give him an egg, which he was feeding to the colt when his mother saw and called to him shrilly from the house. The peona ducked guiltily and ran, stooping, beside a stone wall that hid her from sight until she had slipped into the kitchen. The senora searched for her, scolding volubly in high-keyed Mexican, so that Estan came lounging up to see what was the matter.

Afterwards they all went to the house, and Starr knew that there would be real, Mexican tortillas crisp and hot from the baking, and chili con carne and beans, and perhaps another savory dish or two which the senora herself had prepared for her sons.

Starr was hungry. He imagined that he could smell those tortillas from where he lay. He could have gone down, and the Medinas would have greeted him with lavish welcome and would have urged him to eat his fill. They would not question him, he knew. If they suspected his mission, they would cover their suspicion with much amiable talk, and their protestations of welcome would be the greater because of their insincerity. But he did not go down. He made himself more comfortable between the boulders and settled himself to wait and see what the night would bring.

First it brought the gorgeous sunset, that made him think of Helen May just because it was beautiful and because she would probably be gazing up at the crimson and gold and all the other elusive, swift-changing shades that go to make a barbaric sunset. Sure, she would be looking at it, unless she was still talking to that man, he thought jealously. It fretted him that he did not know who the fellow was. So he turned his thoughts away from the two of them.

Next came the dusk, and after that the stars. There was no moon to taunt him with memories, or more practically, to light for him the near country. With the stars came voices from the porch of the adobe house below him. Estan's voice he made out easily, calling out to Luis inside, to ask if he had shut the colt in the corral. The senora's high voice spoke swiftly, admonishing Luis. And presently Luis could be seen dimly as he moved down toward the corrals.

Starr hated this spying upon a home, but he held himself doggedly to the task. Too many homes were involved, too many sons were in danger, too many mothers would mourn if he did not play the spy to some purpose now. This very home he was watching would be the happier when he and his fellows had completed their work and the snake of intrigue was beheaded just as Helen May had beheaded the rattler that afternoon. This home was happy now, under the very conditions that were being deplored so bombastically in the circulars he had read. Why, then, should its peace be despoiled because of political agitators?

Luis put the colt up for the night and returned, whistling, to the house. The tune he whistled was one he had learned at some movie show, and in a minute he broke into singing, "Hearts seem light, and life seems bright in dreamy Chinatown." Starr, brooding up there above the boy, wished that Luis might never be heavier of heart than now, when he went singing up the path to the thick-walled adobe. He liked Luis.

The murmur of voices continued, and after awhile there came plaintively up to Starr the sound of a guitar, and mingling with it the voice of Luis singing a Spanish song. _La Golondrina_, it was, that melancholy song of exile which Mexicans so love. Starr listened gloomily, following the words easily enough in that still night air.

Away to the northwest there gleamed a brighter, more intimate star than the constellation above. While Luis sang, the watcher in the rocks fixed his eyes wistfully on that gleaming pin point of light, and wondered what Helen May was doing. Her lighted window it was; her window that looked down through the mouth of the Basin and out over the broken mesa land that was half desert. Until then he had not known that her window saw so far; though it was not strange that he could see her light, since he was on the crest of a ridge higher than any other until one reached the bluff that held Sunlight Basin like a pocket within its folds.

Luis finished the song, strummed a while, sang a popular rag-time, strummed again and, so Starr explained his silence, went to bed. Estan began again to talk, now and then lifting his voice, speaking earnestly, as though he was arguing or protesting, or perhaps expounding a theory of some sort. Starr could not catch the words, though he knew in a general way the meaning of the tones Estan was using.

A new sound brought him to his knees, listening: the sound of a high-powered engine being thrown into low gear and buzzing like angry hornets because the wheels did not at once grip and thrust the car forward. Sand would do that. While Starr listened, he heard the chuckle of the car getting under way, and a subdued purring so faint that, had there not been a slow, quiet breeze from that direction, the sound would never have reached his ears at all. Even so, he had no more than identified it when the silence flowed in and covered it as a lazy tide covers a pebble in the moist sand.

Starr glanced down at the house, heard Estan still talking, and got carefully to his feet. He thought he knew where the car had slipped in the sand, and he made toward the place as quickly as he could go in the dark and still keep his movements quiet. It was back in that arroyo where he had first discovered traces of the car he now felt sure had come from the yard of _Las Nuevas_.

He remembered that on the side next him the arroyo had deep-cut banks that might get him a nasty fall if he attempted them in the dark, so he took a little more time for the trip and kept to the rougher, yet safer, granite-covered ridge. Once, just once, he caught the glow of dimmed headlights falling on the slope farthest from him. He hurried faster, after that, and so he climbed down into the arroyo at last, near the point where he had climbed out of it that other day.

He went, as straight as he could go in the dark, to the place where he had first seen the tracks of the Silvertown cords. He listened, straining his ears to catch the smallest sound. A cricket fiddled stridently, but there was nothing else.

Starr took a chance and searched the ground with a pocket flashlight. He did not find any fresh tracks, however. And while he was standing in the dark considering how the hills might have carried the sound deceptively to his ear, and how he may have been mistaken, from somewhere on the other side of the ridge came the abrupt report of a gun. The sound was muffled by the distance, yet it was unmistakable. Starr listened, heard no second shot, and ran back up the rocky gulch that led to the ridge he had just left, behind Medina's house.

He was puffing when he reached the place where he had lain between the two boulders, and he stopped there to listen again. It came,--the sound he instinctively expected, yet dreaded to hear; the sound of a woman's high-keyed wailing.

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