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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Gringos - Chapter 23. The Duel Of Riatas
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The Gringos - Chapter 23. The Duel Of Riatas Post by :MikeA Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :1467

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The Gringos - Chapter 23. The Duel Of Riatas

CHAPTER XXIII. THE DUEL OF RIATAS

"They're riding the last bull," announced Dade, coming into the room again where Jack was dressing for the supreme test of the day. "I've got your plan for the ground explained to Valencia and Pancho, and Diego's shining Surry up till you can see your face in him. You ought to be thankful there's somebody on the lookout as faithful as that Injun. I just discovered he hasn't had a bite to eat since last night, because he wouldn't leave Surry long enough to get anything. I hope you're grateful."

"I am," said Jack shortly. "But I've no business to be. Right now I don't believe much in the sloppy whine of gratitude or the limber-backed prayer for mercy. Thankful or not, we get what we get. Fate hands it out to us; and we may as well take it and keep our mouths shut."

"That's the result of cooping yourself in here all day, just thinking and smoking cigarettes," grumbled Dade, himself worried to the point of nervous petulance. If he could have taken his own riata and fought also, he would have been much nearer his usual calm, humorous self.

"Say, I told Jose the rules you suggested, and he agreed to every one like a gentleman. He just came, and Manuel with him leading the horse Jose means to use; a big, black brute with a chest on him like a lion. His crowd stood on their hind legs and yelled themselves purple when they saw him come riding up."

"Well, that's what they've come for--to yell over Jose." Jack held three new neckties to the light, trying to choose the one he would wear.

"Say--" Dade hesitated, looking doubtfully at the other.

"Well? Say it." Jack chose a deep crimson and flung the loop over his head as if he were arraying himself for a ball.

"It may be some advantage to know ... I've watched Jose lasso cattle; he always uses--"

"Step right there!" Jack swung to face him. "I don't want to know how Jose works with his riata. He don't know any of my little kinks, don't you see? I never," he added, after a little silence, "started out with the deliberate intention of killing a man, before. I can't take any advantage, Dade; you know that, just as well as I do." He tried to smile, to soften the rebuff--and he failed.

Dade went up and laid a contrite hand upon his shoulder. "You're a better man than I am, Jack," he asserted humbly. "But it's hell for me to stand back and let you go into this thing alone. I've got piles of confidence in you, old boy--but Jose never got that medal by saying 'pretty, please' and holding out his hand. The best lassoer in California means something. And he means to kill you--"

"If I'll let him," put in Jack, stretching his lips in what passed for a grin.

"I know--but you've been off the range for two years, just about; and you've had a little over three weeks to make up for that lost practice." His eyes caught their two reflections in the glass, and something in Jack's made him smile ruefully. "Kick me good," he advised. "I need it. I've got nerves worse than any old woman. I know you'll come out on top. You always do. But--what'n hell made you say riatas?"

"What'n hell made you brag about me to Manuel?" Jack came back instantly, and was sorry for it when he saw how Dade winced. "Honest, I'm not a bit scared. I know what I can do, and I'm not worrying."

"You are. I never saw you so queer as you have been since I came back. You're no more like yourself than--"

"Well--but it ain't the duel altogether." Jack hesitated. "Say, Dade! Did--er--did Teresita take in all the sports? Bull fight and all?"

"Yes. She and that friend of hers from the Mission were in the front row having the time of their lives. Is that talk true about--" Dade eyed him sharply.

"You go on and get things ready. In five minutes I'll expect to make my little bow to Fate."

Outside in the sunshine, men waited and clamored greedily for more excitement. All day they had waited for the duel, at most merely appeased by the other sports; and now, with Jose actually among them, and with the wine they had drunk to heat their blood and the mob-psychology working its will of them, they were scarce human, but rather a tremendous battle beast personified by dark, eager faces and tongues that wagged continually and with prejudice.

A group of spur-jingling vaqueros, chosen because of their well-broken mounts, rode out in front of the adobe corral and the expectant audience, halted and dispersed to their various stations as directed by Dade, clear-voiced, steady of glance, unemotional, as if he were in charge of a bit of work from habit gone stale.

He might confess to "nerves" in private; in public, there were men who marveled at his calm.

Riatas uncoiled and with each end fastened to a saddle horn, the vaqueros filed out from the corral in two straight lines, with Dade and Valencia to lead the way. When they were placed to Dade's liking, the riatas fenced in a rectangle two hundred yards long, and one-third that distance across. At each riata length, all down the line, a vaquero sat quiet upon his horse, a living fence-post holding the riata fence tight and straight. Down the middle of the arena thus formed easily with definite boundaries, peons were stretching, upon forked stakes, a rope spliced to reach the whole six hundred feet--save that a space of fifty feet was left open at each end so that the combatants might, upon occasion, change sides easily.

Twice Dade paced the width of the area to make sure that the dividing line marked the exact center. When the last stake was driven deep and the rope was knotted securely in place, he rode straight to the corral and pulled up before the judges' stand for his final announcement.

It was a quiet crowd now that he faced. A mass of men and women, tense, silent, ears and eyes strained to miss no smallest detail. He had no need to lift his hand for their attention; he had it--had it to the extent that every man there was unconscious of his neighbor. That roped area was something new, something they had not been expecting. Also the thing Dade told them sounded strange to these hot-blooded ones, who had looked forward to a whirlwind battle, with dust and swirling riatas and no law except the law of chance and superior skill and cunning.

"The two who will fight with riatas for the medalla oro and for the prize which Don Andres offers to the victor," he began, "have agreed upon certain rules which each has promised to observe faithfully, that skill rather than luck may be the chief factor in the fight. These are the rules of the contest:

"None but those two, Don Jose Pacheco and Senor Allen, will be permitted within the square we have marked off for them after the first signal shot is fired. They will toss a coin for first position and will start from opposite ends of the ground. At the signal, which will be a pistol shot, they will mount and ride with the center rope between them. Upon meeting"--he stopped long enough for a quick smile--"they will try what they can do. If both miss, they will coil their riatas and hang them from the horn, and ride on to the end; there they will dismount and wait for the second signal for starting.

"They will repeat these maneuvers until the contest is decided, one way or the other, but at no time will they start before the signal is given.

"Remember, no one else will be permitted inside the line, at any time; also, neither of the contestants may pass the dividing line unless he has the other at his mercy--when--he may cross if he chooses." It cost Dade something, that last sentence, but he said it firmly; repeated the rules more briefly in English and rode out of the square, a vaquero slackening the first riata of the line to leave a space for him to pass. And as he went, there was nothing in his manner to show how ticklish he felt the situation to be.

Only, when he came upon Jack, just riding out from the stable upon Surry, his lips drew tight and thin. But he merely waved his hand and went on to tell Jose that he wanted Manuel to give the signals, for then all would be sure that there would be no unfairness.

He was gone perhaps two minutes; yet when he returned with Manuel glowering beside him, that fenced area was lined four deep with horsemen all around; and so had they segregated themselves instinctively, friend with friend, that the northern side was a mass of bright colors to show that there stood the Spanish caballeros; and opposite them, a more motley showing and yet a more sinister one, stood the Americanos, with Bill Wilson pressed against the rope half-way down the line, and beside him big Jerry Simpson, lounging upon Moll, his black mule.

Instinctively, Dade rode around to them, beckoning Manuel to follow; and placed him between Jerry and Bill; explained that Manuel was to fire the starting signals, and smiled his thanks when Jerry promptly produced one of his "twins" and placed it in Manuel's hands.

"P'int her nose in the air, mister, when you turn her loose," he advised solemnly. "She's loaded fur b'ar!"

"Keep your eyes open," Dade warned Bill Wilson when he turned to ride back; and Bill nodded understandingly. Bill, for that matter, usually did keep his eyes open, and to such purpose that nothing escaped them.

Back at the corral, Dade saw Jack waiting upon Surry in the shade of the adobe wall until the moment came for entering the arena. Near to him, Jose calmed his big, black horse and waited also, cold hauteur the keynote of his whole attitude. Dade waved his hand to them, and they followed him into the empty rectangle. From the crowd came a rustle as of a gust of wind through tree-tops; then they were still again, watching and waiting and listening.

Those for whom they had watched all day at last stood side by side before them; and the picture they made must have pleased the most exacting eye that looked down upon them.

For Jose was all black and silver, from the tasseled, silver cord upon his embroidered sombrero to the great silver rowels of his spurs. Black velvet jacket, black velvet breeches with silver braid glistening in heavy, intricate pattern; black hair, black eyes--and a black frown, withal, and for good reason, perhaps. For, thinking to win a smile from her who had sent the glove and the message, Jose looked towards the nearest and most comfortable seat, where Teresita sat, smiling and resplendent, between her mother and Rosa. He had looked, had Jose, and had seen her smile; but he saw that it was not at him she smiled, but at Jack. It is true, the smile may have been merely scornful; but Jose was in no mood for nice analysis, and the hurt was keen enough because she smiled at all, and it made his mood a savage one.

Jack was all white and red save for the saddle, which was black with silver trimmings; and Surry, milk white from ears to heel, served to complete the picture satisfyingly. Diego must have put an extra crimp in mane and tail, for the waves were beautiful to behold; he had surely polished the hoofs so that they shone; and nature had done the rest, when she made Surry the proud, gentle, high-stepping animal he was. Jack wore breeches and jacket of soft, white leather--and none but Bill Wilson knew what they had cost in time, trouble, and money. A red, silk sash was knotted about his middle; the flaming, crimson tie fluttered under his chin; and he was bareheaded, so that his coppery hair lifted from his untanned forehead in the breeze, and made many a senorita's pulse quicken admiringly. For Jack, think what you will of him otherwise, was extremely good to look upon.

"Heads for Don Jose!" A Mexican dollar, spun high in air from Dade's fingers, glittered and fell straight. Three heads bent to see which side came uppermost, and thousands of necks craned futilely.

"Don Jose will choose his starting-point," Dade called out. "But first the two will lead their horses over the ground, so that they may make sure that there are no holes or stones to trip them."

Even in that preliminary, they showed how differently two persons will go about doing the same thing. Jose, trailing immense, silver spur-rowels, walked with the bridle reins looped over his arm, his eyes examining critically every foot of the ground as he passed.

Jack, loosening his riata as he dismounted, caught the loop over the high horn and let the rope drop to the ground. He wore no spurs; and as for Surry, he had no bridle and bit, but a hackamore instead.

Jack threw the reins over the neck of the horse. "Come, old fellow," he said, quite as if he were speaking to a person, and started off. And Surry, his neck arched, his ears perked knowingly, stepped out after him with that peculiar, springy gait that speaks eloquently of perfect muscles and a body fairly vibrating with energy; the riata trailed after him, every little tendency towards a kink taken out of it.

"Dios! What a caballo is that white one!" Dade heard a Salinas man exclaim, and flushed at the praise.

Back they came, Jack and Surry, with Jack ten feet in advance of the horse; for Jose had chosen to remain at the southern end, with the sun at his left shoulder. Jack, for all his eagerness to begin, found time to shake hands with Bill and say a word to some others as he passed--and those eyes up there that watched did not miss one single movement.

"Look, you! The gringo is telling his friends adios while he may!" some one shouted loudly from across the arena; and a great laugh roared from the throats that were dark, and handclapping at the witticism made the speaker a self-conscious caballero indeed.

At the corral, which was his starting-point, Jack took up the dragging riata, and with his handkerchief wiped off the dust while he coiled it again; hung it over the saddle horn and waited for the signal.

He was scowling now at certain remarks that came to his ears from the seats, with titters and chuckles to point their wit. But he sent a cheering eye-signal to Dade, whose face was strained and noticeably white under the tan.

Half-way down the line, among the Americans, there was a little stir, and then a pistol barked with that loud crash which black powder makes. Jack, on the instant when the smoke curled up in a little, balloon-like puff, turned and leaped into the saddle. The duel of riatas was begun.

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