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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesStarr, Of The Desert - Chapter 17. "Is He Then Dead--My Son?"
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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 17. 'Is He Then Dead--My Son?' Post by :Allnewe Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :2292

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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 17. "Is He Then Dead--My Son?"


Starr hurried down the bluff, slipping, sliding, running where the way was clear of rocks. So presently he came to the stone wall, vaulted over it, and stopped beside the tragic little group dimly outlined in the house yard just off the porch.

"My son--my son!" the old woman was wailing, on her knees beside a long, inert figure lying on its back on the hard-packed earth. Back of her the peona hovered, hysterical, useless. Luis, half dressed and a good deal dazed yet from sleep and the suddenness of his waking, knelt beside his mother, patting her shoulder in futile affection, staring down bewilderedly at Estan.

So Starr found them. Scenes like this were not so unusual in his life, which had been lived largely among unruly passions. He spoke quietly to Luis and knelt to see if the man lived. The senora took comfort from his calm presence and with dumb misery watched his deft movements while he felt for heartbeats and for the wound.

"But is he then dead, my son?" she wailed in Spanish, when Starr gently laid down upon Estan's breast the hand he had been holding. "But so little while ago he lived and to me he talked. Ah, my son!"

Starr looked at her quietingly. "How, then, did it happen? Tell me, senora, that I may assist," he said, speaking easily the Spanish which she spoke.

"Ah, the good friend that thou art! Ah, my son that I loved! How can I tell what is mystery? Who would harm my son--my little Estan that was so good? Yet a voice called softly from the dark--and me, I heard, though to my bed I had but gone. 'Estan!' called the voice, so low. And my son--ah, my son!--to the door he went swiftly, the _lampara in his hand, holding it high--so--that the light may shine into the dark.

"'Who calls?' Me, I heard my son ask--ah, never again will I hear his voice! Out of the door he went--to see the man who called. To the porch-end he came--I heard his steps. Ah, my son! Never again thy dear footsteps will I hear!" And she fell to weeping over him.

"And then? Tell me, senora. What happened next?"

"Ah--the shot that took from me my son! Then feet running away--then I came out--Ah, _querido mio_, that thou shouldst be torn from thy mother thus!"

"And you don't know--?"

"No, no--no--ah, that my heart should break with sorrow--"

"Hush, mother! 'Twas Apodaca! He is powerful--and Estan would not come into the Alliance. I told him it would be--" Luis, kneeling there, beating his hands together in the dark, spoke with the heedless passion of youth.

"Which Apodaca? Juan?" Starr's voice was low, with the sympathetic tone that pulls open the floodgates of speech when one is stricken hard.

"Not Juan; Juan is a fool. Elfigo Apodaca it was--or some one obeying his order. Estan they feared--Estan would not come in, and the time was coming so close--and Estan held out and talked against it. I told him his life would pay for his holding out. I _told him! And now I shall kill Apodaca--and my life also will pay--"

"What is this thou sayest?" The mother, roused from her lamentations by the boy's vehemence, plucked at his sleeve. "But thou must not kill, my little son. Thou art--"

"Why not? They'll all be killing in a month!" flashed Luis unguardedly.

Starr, kneeling on one knee, looked at the boy across Estan's chilling body. A guarded glance it was, but a searching glance that questioned and weighed and sat in judgment upon the truth of the startling assertion. Yet younger boys than Luis are commanding troops in Mexico, for the warlike spirit develops early in a land where war is the chief business of the populace. It was not strange then that eighteen-year-old Luis should be actively interested in the building of a revolution on this side the border. It was less strange because of his youth; for Luis would have all the fiery attributes of the warrior, unhindered by the cool judgment of maturity. He would see the excitement, the glory of it. Estan would see the terrible cost of it, in lives and in patrimony. Luis loved action. Estan loved his big flocks and his acres upon acres of land, and his quiet home; had loved too his foster country, if he had spoken his true sentiments. So Starr took his cue and thanked his good fortune that he had come upon this tragedy while it was fresh, and while the shock of it was loosening the tongue of Luis.

"A month from now is another time, Luis," he said quietly. "This is murder, and the man who did it can be punished."

"You can't puneesh Apodaca," Luis retorted, speaking English, since Starr had used the language, which put their talk beyond the mother's understanding. "He is too--too high up--But I can kill," he added vindictively.

"The law can get him better than you can," Starr pointed out cannily. "Can you think of anybody else that might be in on the deal?"

"N-o--" Luis was plainly getting a hold on himself, and would not tell all he knew. "I don't know notheeng about it."

"Well, what you'd better do now is saddle a horse and ride in to town and tell the coroner--and the sheriff. If you don't," he added, when he caught a stiffening of opposition in the attitude of Luis, "if you don't, you will find yourself in all kinds of trouble. It will look bad. You have to notify the coroner, anyway, you know. That's the law. And the coroner will see right away that Estan was shot. So the sheriff will be bound to get on the job, and it will be a heap better for you, Luis, if you tell him yourself. And if you try to kill Apodaca, that will rob your mother of both her sons. You must think of her. Estan would never bring trouble to her that way. You stand in his place now. So you ride in and tell the sheriff and tell the coroner. Say that you suspect Elfigo Apodaca. The sheriff will do the rest."

"What does the senor advise, my son?" murmured the mother, plucking at the sleeve of Luis. "The good friend he was to my poor Estan--my son! Do thou what he tells thee, for he is wise and good, and he would not guide thee wrong."

Luis hesitated, staring down at the dead body of Estan. "I will go," he said, breaking in upon the sound of the peona's reasonless weeping. "I will do that. The sheriff is not Mexican, or--" He checked himself abruptly and peered across at Starr. "I go," he repeated hastily.

He stood up, and Starr rose also and assisted the old lady to her feet. She seemed inclined to cling to him. Her Estan had liked Starr, and for that her faith in him never faltered now. He laid his arm protectively around her shaking shoulders.

"Senora, go you in and rest," he commanded gently, in Spanish. "Have the girl bring a blanket to cover Estan--for here he must remain until he is viewed by the coroner--you understand? Your son would be grieved if you do not rest. You still have Luis, your little son. You must be brave and help Luis to be a man. Then will Estan be proud of you both." So he suited his speech to the gentle ways of the old senora, and led her back to the shelter of the porch as tenderly as Estan could have done.

He sent the peona for a lamp to replace the one that had broken when Estan fell with it in his hand. He settled the senora upon the cowhide-covered couch where her frail body could be comfortable and she still could feel that she was watching beside her son. He placed a pillow under her head, and spread a gay-striped serape over her, and tucked it carefully around her slippered feet. The senora wept more quietly, and called him the son of her heart, and brokenly thanked God for the tenderness of all good men.

He explained to her briefly that he had been riding to town by a short-cut over the ridge when he heard the shot and hurried down; and that, having left his horse up there, he must go up after it and bring it around to the corral. He would not be gone longer than was absolutely necessary, he told her, and he promised to come back and stay with her while the officers were there. Then he hurried away, the senora's broken thanks lingering painfully in his memory.

At the top of the bluff, where he had climbed as fast as he could, he stood for a minute to get his breath back. He heard the muffled pluckety-pluck of a horse galloping down the sandy trail, and he knew that there went Luis on his bitter mission to San Bonito. His eyes turned involuntarily toward Sunlight Basin. There twinkled still the light from Helen May's window, though it was well past midnight. Starr wondered at that, and hoped she was not sick. Then immediately his face grew lowering. For between him and the clear, twinkling light of her window he saw a faint glow that moved swiftly across the darkness; an automobile running that way with dimmed headlights.

"Now what in thunder does that mean?" he asked himself uneasily. He had not in the least expected that move. He had believed that the automobile he had heard, which very likely had carried the murderer, would hurry straight to town, or at least in that direction. But those dimmed lights, and in that the machine surely betrayed a furtiveness in its flight, seemed to be heading for Sunlight Basin, though it might merely be making the big loop on its way to Malpais or beyond. He stared again at the twinkling light of Helen May's lamp. What in the world was she doing up at that hour of the night? "Oh, well, maybe she sleeps with a light burning." He dismissed the unusual incident, and went on about his more urgent business.

Rabbit greeted him with a subdued nicker of relief, telling plainly as a horse can speak that he had been seriously considering foraging for his supper and not waiting any longer for Starr. There he had stood for six or seven hours, just where Starr had dismounted and dropped the reins. He was a patient little horse, and he knew his business, but there is a limit to patience, and Rabbit had almost reached it.

Starr led him up over the rocky ridge into the arroyo where the automobile had been, and from there he rode down to the trail and back to the Medina ranch. He watered Rabbit at the ditch, pulled off the saddle, and turned him into the corral, throwing him an armful of secate from a half-used stack. Then he went up to the house and sat on the edge of the porch beside the senora, who was still weeping and murmuring yearning endearments to the ears that could not hear.

He did not know how long he would have to wait, but he knew that Luis would not spare his horse. He smoked, and studied the things which Luis had let drop; every word of immense value to him now. Elfigo Apodaca he knew slightly, and he wondered a little that he would be the Alliance leader in this section of the State.

Elfigo Apodaca seemed so thoroughly Americanized that only his swarthy skin and black hair and eyes reminded one that he was after all a son of the south. He did a desultory business in real estate, and owned an immense tract of land, the remnant of an old Spanish grant, and went in for fancy cattle and horses. He seemed more a sportsman than a politician--a broadminded, easy-going man of much money. Starr had still a surprised sensation that the trail should lead to Elfigo. Juan, the brother of Elfigo, he could find it much easier to see in the role of conspirator. But horror does not stop to weigh words, and Starr knew that Luis had spoken the truth in that unguarded moment.

He pondered that other bit of information that had slipped out: "In a month they'll all be killing." That was a point which he and his colleagues had not been able to settle in their own minds, the proposed date of the uprising. In a month! The time was indeed short, but now that they had something definite to work on, a good deal might be done in a month; so on the whole Starr felt surprisingly cheerful. And if Elfigo found himself involved in a murder trial, it would help to hamper his activities with the Alliance. Starr regretted the death of Estan, but he kept thinking of the good that would come of it. He kept telling himself that the shooting of Estan Medina would surely put a crimp in the revolution. Also it would mark Luis for a mate to the bullet that reached Estan, if that hotheaded youth did not hold his tongue.

He was considering the feasibility of sending Luis and his mother out of the country for awhile, when the sheriff and coroner and Luis came rocking down the narrow trail in a roadster built for speed where speed was no pleasure but a necessity.

The sheriff was an ex-cattleman, with a desert-baked face and hard eyes and a disconcerting habit of chewing gum and listening and saying nothing himself. For the sake of secrecy, Starr had avoided any acquaintance with him and his brother officers, so the sheriff gave him several sharp glances while he was viewing the body and the immediate surroundings. Luis had told him, coming out, the meager details of the murder, and he had again accused Elfigo Apodaca, though he had done some real thinking on the way to town, and had cooled to the point where he chose his words more carefully. The sheriff's name was O'Malley, which is reason enough why Luis was chary of confiding Mexican secrets to his keeping.

Elfigo Apodaca had quarreled with Estan, said Luis. He had come to the ranch, and Luis had heard them quarreling over water rights. Elfigo had threatened to "get" Estan, and to "fix" him, and Luis had been afraid that Estan would be shot before the quarrel was over. He had heard the voice that called Estan out of the house that night, and he told the sheriff that he had recognized Elfigo's voice. Luis surely did all he could to settle any doubt in the mind of the sheriff, and he felt that he had been very smart to say they quarreled over water rights; a lawsuit two years ago over that very water-right business lent convincingness to the statement.

The sheriff had not said anything at all after Luis had finished his story of the shooting. He had chewed gum with the slow, deliberate jaw of a cow meditating over her cud, and he had juggled the wheel of his machine and shifted his gears on hills and in sandy stretches with the same matter-of-fact deliberation. Sheriff O'Malley might be called one of the old school of rail-roosting, stick-whittling thinkers. He took his time, and he did not commit himself too impulsively to any cause. But he could act with surprising suddenness, and that made him always an uncertain factor, so that lawbreakers feared him as they feared nightmares.

The sheriff, then, stood around with his hands in his pockets and his feet planted squarely under him, squeezing a generous quid of gum between his teeth and very slightly teetering on heels and toes, while the coroner made a cursory examination and observed, since it was coming gray daylight, how the lamp lay shattered just where it had fallen with Estan. He asked, in bad Spanish, a few questions of the grief-worn senora, who answered him dully as she had answered Starr. She had heard the call, yes.

"You know Elfigo Apodaca?" the sheriff asked suddenly, and watched how the eyes of the senora went questioningly, uneasily, to Luis; watched how she hesitated before she admitted that she knew him.

"You know his voice?"

But the senora closed her thin lips and shook her head, and in a minute she laid her head back on the pillow and closed her eyes also, and would talk no more.

The sheriff chewed and teetered meditatively, his eyes on the ground. From the tail of his eye Starr watched him, secretly willing to bet that he knew what the sheriff was thinking. When O'Malley turned and strolled back to the porch, his hands still in his pockets and his eyes still on the ground as though he were weighing the matter carefully, Starr stood where he was, apparently unaware that the sheriff had moved. Starr seemed to be watching the coroner curiously, but he knew just when the sheriff passed cat-footedly behind him, and he grinned to himself.

The sheriff made one of his sudden moves, and jerked the six-shooter from its holster at Starr's hip, pulled out the cylinder pin and released the cylinder with its customary five loaded chambers and an empty one under the hammer. He tilted the gun, muzzle to him, toward the rising sun and squinted into its barrel that shone with the care it got, save where particles of dust had lodged in the bore. He held the gun close under his red nose and sniffed for the smell of oil that would betray a fresh cleaning. And Starr watched him interestedly, smiling approval.

"All right, far as you've gone," he said casually, when the sheriff was replacing the cylinder in the gun. "If you want to go a step farther, I reckon maybe I can show you where I come down off the bluff when I heard the shot, and where I went back again after my horse. And you'll see, maybe, that I couldn't shoot from the bluff and get a man around on the far side of the house. Won't take but a minute to show yuh." He gave the slight head tilt and the slight wink of one eye which, the world over, asks for a secret conference, and started off around the corner of the house.

The sheriff followed noncommittally but he kept close at Starr's heels as though he suspected that Starr meant to disappear somehow. So they reached the bluff, which Starr knew would be out of hearing from the house so long as they did not speak loudly. He pointed down at the prints of his boots where he had left the rocks of the steep hillside for the sand of the level; and he even made a print beside the clearest track to show the sheriff that he had really come down there as he climbed. But it was plain that Starr's mind was not on the matter of footprints.

"Keep on looking around here, like you was tracing up my trail," he said in a low voice, pointing downward. "I've got something I want to tell yuh, and I want you to listen close and get what I say, because I ain't apt to repeat it. And I don't want that coroner to get the notion we're talking anything over. That little play you made with my gun showed that you've got hoss sense and ain't overlooking any bets, and it may be that I'll have use for yuh before long. Now listen."

The sheriff listened, chewing industriously and wandering about while Starr talked. His hard eyes changed a little, and twice he nodded his head in assent.

"Now you do that," said Starr at last, with an air of one giving orders. "And see to it that you get a hearing as soon as possible. I can't appear except as a witness, of course, but I want a chance to size up the fellows that take the biggest interest in the trial. And keep it all on the basis of a straight quarrel, if you can. You'll have to fix that up with the prosecuting attorney, if you can trust him that far."

"I can, Mr. Starr. He's my brother-in-law, and he's the best man we could pick in the county for what you want. I get you, all right. There won't be anything drop about what you just told me."

"There better hadn't be anything drop!" Starr told him dryly. "You're into something deeper than county work now, ole-timer. This is Federal business, remember. Come on back and stall around some more, and let me go on about my own business. You can get word to me at the Palacia if you want me at the inquest, but don't get friendly. I'm just a stock-buyer that happened along. Keep it that way."

"I sure will, Mr. Starr. I'll do my part." The sheriff relapsed into his ruminative manner as he led the way back to the house. One may guess that Starr had given him something worth ruminating about.

In a few minutes, he told Starr curtly that he could go if he wanted to; and he bettered that by muttering to the coroner that he had a notion to hold the fellow, but that he seemed to have a pretty clear alibi, and they could get him later if they wanted him. To which the coroner agreed in neighborly fashion.

Starr was saddling Rabbit for another long ride, and he was scowling thoughtfully while he did it.

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