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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHeart Of The Sunset - Chapter 9. A Scouting Trip
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Heart Of The Sunset - Chapter 9. A Scouting Trip Post by :ninja1023 Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :1513

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Heart Of The Sunset - Chapter 9. A Scouting Trip

CHAPTER IX. A SCOUTING TRIP

"What ails you?" Law inquired as he and Blaze rolled away in the buckboard.

"Serves me right for leaving my six-shooter at home," panted the rancher. "Well, I might have known they'd find me some day."

"'They'? Who?"

"That hombre and his wife--the woman with the mustache. They swore they'd get me, and it looks like they will, for I daresn't raise my hand to protect myself."

This was very mystifying to Dave, and he said so.

"The woman'll recognize me, quick enough," Blaze asserted, and then, "God knows what Paloma will do."

"Really! Is it that bad?"

"It's a vile story, Dave, and I never expected to tell anybody; but it's bound to come out on me now, so you better hear my side. Last summer I attended a convention at Galveston, and one hot day I decided to take a swim, so I hired a suit and a room to cache my six-shooter in. It was foolish proceedings for a man my age, but the beach was black with people and I wasn't altogether myself. You see, we'd had an open poker game running in my room for three days, and I hadn't got any sleep. I was plumb feverish, and needed a dip. Well, I'm no water-dog, Dave; I can't swim no better than a tarrapin with its legs cut off, but I sloshed around some in the surf, and then I took a walk to dreen off and see the sights. It was right interesting when I got so I could tell the women from the men--you see I'd left my glasses in the bath-house.

"Now I'd sort of upheld the general intemperance of that poker game for three days and nights--but I don't offer my condition as an excuse for what follows. No gentleman ought to lay his indecencies onto John Barley corn when they're nothing more nor less than the outcroppin's of his own orneriness. Liquor has got enough to answer for without being blamed for human depravities. I dare say I was friendlier than I had any right to be; I spoke to strangers, and some of the girls hollered at me, but I wouldn't have harmed a soul.

"Well, in the course of my promenade I came to a couple of fellers setting half-buried in the sand, and just as I was passing one of them got up--sort of on all-fours and--er--facing away from me-- sabe? That's where the trouble hatched. I reached out and, with nothing but good-will in my heart, I--sort of pinched this party- sort of on the hip, or thereabouts. I didn't mean a thing by it, Dave. I just walked on, smiling, till something run into me from behind. When I got up and squared around, there was that man we just left cutting didos out of black paper.

"'What d'you mean by pinching my wife?' he says, and he was r'arin' mad.

"'Your WIFE?' I stammers, and with that he climbs me. Dave, I was weak with shame and surprise, and all I could do was hold him off. Sure enough, the man I'd pinched was a long, ga'nt woman with a little black mustache, and here she came!

"We started in right there. I never saw such a poisonous person as that woman. She was coiled, her head was up, and her rattles agoing, and so I finally lit out But I'm sort of fat, and they over-ran me. They bayed me against the sea-wall, and all I had the heart to do was to hold 'em off some more. Soon as I got my wind I shook 'em off a second time and run some more, but they downed me. By that time we'd begun to gather quite a crowd. ...

"Dave, was you ever treed by wild hogs? That's how them two people kept after me. You'd have thought I'd deprived 'em of their young. I didn't want to hurt 'em, but whenever I'd run they'd tangle my legs. By and by I got so short of breath that I couldn't run, so I fell on top of the man. But the woman got me by the legs and rolled me under. I busted out and hoofed it again, but they caught me and down we went, me on top. Then that man's helpmate grabbed my legs and rolled me over, like she did before. Finally I got too tired to do anything but paw like a puppy. It seems like we must have fought that way all the morning, Dave. Anyhow, people gathered from long distances and cheered the woman. I got desperate toward the last, and I unraveled the right hip of my bathing suit grabbing for my gun. I couldn't see the bath-house for the sand in my eyes, so I must have led 'em up across the boulevard and into the tent colony, for after a while we were rolling around among tent-pegs and tangling up in guy-ropes, and all the time our audience was growing. Dave, those tent-ropes sounded like guitar strings."

Blaze paused to wipe the sweat from his brow, whereupon his listener inquired in a choking voice:

"How did you come out?"

"I reckon I'd have got shed of 'em somehow, for I was resting up on top of my man, but that stinging lizard of a woman got her claws into the neck of my bathing-suit and r'ared back on it. Dave, she skinned me out of that garment the way you'd skin out an eel, and--there I was! You never heard such a yelling as went up. And I didn't hear all of it, either, for I just laid back my ears and went through those sight-seers like a jack-rabbit. I never knew a man could run like I did. I could hear people holler, 'Here he comes,' 'There he goes,' 'Yonder he went,' but I was never headed. I hurdled the sea-wall like an antelope, and before they got eyes on me I was into my bath-house.

"When I'd got dressed, I sneaked up to the Galvez for a drink. In the bar were a lot of stockmen, and they asked me where I'd been. I told 'em I'd been nursing a sick lodge member, and they said:

"'Too bad! You missed the damnedest fight since Custer was licked. We couldn't get very close, for the jam, but it was great!'

"The story went all over Galveston. The husband swore he'd kill the man who attacked his wife, and the newspapers called on the police to discover the ruffian."

There was a protracted silence; then Law controlled his voice sufficiently to say: "It's fortunate he didn't recognize you to- night."

"Maybe he did. Anyhow, his wife is the new dressmaker Paloma's hired. I 'ain't got a chance, Dave. That story will ruin me in the community, and Paloma will turn me out when she learns I'm a--a lady-pincher."

"What are you going to do about it?"

Blaze sighed. "I don't know, yet. Probably I'll end by running from those scorpions, like I did before."

The next morning at breakfast Paloma announced, "Father, you must help Dave hunt down these cattle thieves."

"Ain't that sort of a big order?" Blaze queried.

"Perhaps, but you're the very man to do it. Ricardo Guzman is the only person who knows the Lewis gang as well as you do."

Jones shook his head doubtfully. "Don Ricardo has been working up his own private feud with that outfit. If I was the kind that went looking for a fight, I wouldn't have paid freight on myself from the Panhandle down here. I could have got one right at home, any morning before breakfast."

"Ricardo Guzman is something of a black sheep himself," Law spoke up.

"Pshaw! He's all right. I reckon he has changed a few brands in his time, but so has everybody else. Why, that's how 'Old Ed' Austin got his start. If a cowman tells you he never stole anything, he's either a dam' good liar or a dam' bad roper. But Ricardo's going straight enough now."

"He has lost his share of stock," Paloma explained, "and he'll work with you if father asks him. You go along with Dave---"

"I'm too busy," Blaze demurred, "and I ain't feeling good. I had bad dreams all night."

"I don't want you around here this morning. That new dressmaker is coming."

Jones rose abruptly from the table. "I reckon my business can wait. Hustle up, Dave." A few moments later, as they were saddling their horses, he lamented: "What did I tell you? Here I go, on the dodge from a dressmaker. I s'pose I've got to live like a road- agent now, till something happens."

Don Ricardo Guzman was an American, but he spoke no English. An accident of birth had made him a citizen of the United States--his father having owned a ranch which lay north instead of south of the Rio Grande. Inasmuch as the property had fallen to Ricardo, his sons, too, were Yankees in the eyes of the law. But in all other respects Don Ricardo and his family differed not at all from the many Guzmans who lived across the border. The Guzman ranch comprised a goodly number of acres, and, since live stock multiply rapidly, its owner had in some sort prospered. On the bank of a resaca---a former bed of the Rio Grande--stood the house, an adobe structure, square, white, and unprotected from the sun by shrub or tree. Behind it were some brush corrals and a few scattered mud jacals, in which lived the help.

Ricardo had just risen from a siesta when his two visitors rode up, and he made them welcome with the best he had. There followed a complimentary exchange of greetings and the usual flow of small talk. Ricardo had suffered a severe toothache--the same abominable affliction that had lost Porfirio Diaz an empire. It had been a dry spring, but, praise God, the water still held in the resaca-- his two sons were branding calves in one of the outer pastures-- and there had been a very good calf crop indeed. Blaze recounted his own doings; Law told of Ranger activities along the lower border. In the cool of the afternoon Ricardo rode with his visitors, and then, cordial relations being now established, he began to divulge information of value to Law.

Yes, he had endured many depredations from thieves. It was shameful, but doubtless God willed that a certain amount of stealing should go on in the world. The evil-doers were certainly favored by nature, in this locality, for the great expanse of brush country to the north and east offered almost perfect security, and the river, to the south, gave immunity from pursuit or prosecution. The beeves were driven north into the wilderness, but the horses went to Mexico, where the war had created a market for them. The Federals had plenty of money to buy mounts.

Whom did Don Ricardo suspect?

The old man was non-committal. Suspicion was one thing, proof was quite another; and conviction was difficult under the best of circumstances. Why, even a cow's recognition of her own calf was not evidence for a court, and alibis were easily proven. Unless the thieves were caught in the very act there was no case against them, and--por Dios!--one could not be for ever on guard. Who could tell where the malefactors would strike next? Now, in Mexico one could afford to kill an undesirable neighbor without so much formality. But, thank God! Don Ricardo was not a Mexican. No, he was a good American citizen. It was something to make him sleep well in these war-times.

"Just the same, I'll bet he'd sleep better if the Lewis outfit was cleaned up," Dave ventured, and Blaze agreed.

Guzman caught his enemy's name and nodded.

"Ah! That sin verguenza! He sells arms to the Candeleristas and horses to the Potosistas. Perhaps he steals my calves. Who knows?"

"Senor Lewis doesn't need to steal. He has money," Jones argued.

"True! But who is so rich that he would not be richer? Lewis employs men who are poor, and he himself is above nothing. I, too, am a friend of the Rebels. Panchito, the Liberator, was a saint, and I give money to the patriots who fight for his memory. But I do not aid the tyrant Potosi with my other hand. Yes, and who is richer, for instance, than Senor Eduardo Austin?"

"You surely don't accuse him of double-dealing with the Rebels?" Blaze inquired, curiously.

"I don't know. He is a friend of Tad Lewis, and there are strange stories afloat."

Just what these stories were, however, Ricardo would not say, feeling, perhaps, that he had already said too much.

The three men spent that evening together, and in the morning Blaze rode home, leaving the Ranger behind for the time being as Guzman's guest.

Dave put in the next two days riding the pastures, familiarizing himself with the country, and talking with the few men he met. About all he discovered, however, was the fact that the Guzman range not only adjoined some of Lewis's leased land, but also was bounded for several miles by the Las Palmas fence.

It was pleasant to spend the days among the shy brush-cattle, with Bessie Belle for company. The mare seemed to enjoy the excursions as much as her owner. Her eyes and ears were ever alert; she tossed her head and snorted when a deer broke cover or a jack- rabbit scuttled out of her path; she showed a friendly interest in the awkward calves which stood and eyed her with such amazement and then galloped stiffly off with tails high arched.

Law had many times undertaken to break Bessie Belle of that habit of flinging her head high at sudden sounds, but she was nervous and inquisitive, and this was the one thing upon which she maintained a feminine obstinacy.

On the second evening the Ranger rode home through a drizzle that had materialized after a long, threatening afternoon and now promised to become a real rain. Ricardo met him at the door to say:

"You bring good fortune with you, senor, for the land is thirsty. To-morrow, if this rain holds, we shall ride together--you, Pedro, and I. Those thieves do their stealing when they leave no tracks."

Raoul, the younger son, volunteered to go in place of his father, but Ricardo would not hear of it.

"Am I so old that I must lie abed?" he cried. "No! We three shall ride the fences, and if we encounter a cut wire--diablo!--we shall have a story to tell, eh?"

The sky was leaden, the rain still fell in the morning when Dave and his two companions set out. Until noon they rode, their slickers dripping, their horses steaming; then they ate an uncomfortable lunch under the thickest hackberry-tree they could find, after which they resumed their patrol. Ricardo's tongue at length ran down under this discomfort, and the three riders sat their saddles silently, swaying to the tireless fox-trot of their horses, their eyes engaged in a watchful scrutiny.

At last Pedro, who was ahead, reined in and pointed; the others saw where the barbed-wire strands of the fence they had been following were clipped. A number of horse and calf tracks led through the opening, and after an examination Ricardo announced:

"There are two men. They have come and gone, with the calves tied neck and neck."

"That is Las Palmas, isn't it?" Law indicated the pasture into which the trail led.

Father and son answered, "Si, senor."

For a time the Ranger lounged sidewise in his saddle, studying the country before him. The land was open and comparatively flat; it was broken by tiny clumps of mesquite and low, sprawling beds of cactus. Perhaps a half-mile away, however, began a long, narrow patch of woods, with the tops of occasional oaks showing, and this ran parallel with the fence for a considerable distance.

"They took them in yonder, to brand," he said, straightening himself. "Maybe we'll be in time."

Side by side the three men rode off Guzman's land, following the tracks to the nearest point of woods; there Law stopped to give his directions.

"Pedro, you ride down this side; Ricardo, you skirt the outside. I shall keep to the middle. Walk your horses, for I shall go slowly." He slipped his carbine from its scabbard; the others did the same.

But Dave's plan did not commend itself to Ricardo; the old man's face puckered into an expression of doubt, and, removing his hat, he ran a hand over his wiry, short-cropped, white hair.

"Senor," he protested, "I know something about these men, and they will not wait to learn that you are an officer. Perhaps I had better ride with you."

But Law declined the well-meant offer, and with a dubious shake of the head Ricardo rode away, while Dave guided Bessie Belle into the grove.

The mare seemed to know that something unusual was afoot. Perhaps some nervous tensity of her rider made itself felt, perhaps with equine sagacity she had understood from the first the nature of this scouting expedition. Dave was inclined to believe the latter- -he had often averred that Bessie Belle knew quite as much as or more than he. At any rate she picked her way with admirable care, her hoofs made almost no sound upon the wet soil; only the complaint of the saddle leathers or the swish of a wet branch rose above the steady patter of the raindrops. It was not necessary to guide her; she selected the openings of her own free will, her small, sharp ears were alert, and her eyes searched the glades intently.

Dave smiled at this excess of caution and stroked Bessie Belle's wet neck encouragingly, whereupon she turned her head and it seemed to the rider that she nodded her complete understanding. Law could have kissed her.

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