A fitful breeze played among the mesquite bushes. The naked earth,where it showed between the clumps of grass, was baked plaster hard. Itburned like hot slag, and except for a panting lizard here and there,or a dust-gray jack-rabbit, startled from its covert, nothing animatestirred upon its face. High and motionless in the blinding sky abuzzard poised; long-tailed Mexican crows among the thorny branchescreaked and whistled, choked and rattled, snored and grunted; a dovemourned inconsolably, and out of the air issued metallic insectcries--the direction whence they came as unascertainable as theirsource was hidden.
Although the sun was half-way down the west, its glare remaineduntempered, and the tantalizing shade of the sparse mesquite was moreof a trial than a comfort to the lone woman who, refusing its deceitfulinvitation, plodded steadily over the waste. Stop, indeed, she darednot. In spite of her fatigue, regardless of the torture from feet andlimbs unused to walking, she must, as she constantly assured herself,keep going until strength failed. So far, fortunately, she had kept herhead, and she retained sufficient reason to deny the fancifulapprehensions which clamored for audience. If she once allowed herselfto become panicky, she knew, she would fare worse--far worse--and now,if ever, she needed all her faculties. Somewhere to the northward,perhaps a mile, perhaps a league distant, lay the water-hole.
But the country was of a deadly and a deceitful sameness, devoid oflandmarks and lacking well-defined water-courses. The unending mesquitewith its first spring foliage resembled a limitless peach-orchard sownby some careless and unbelievably prodigal hand. Out of these falseacres occasional knolls and low stony hills lifted themselves so thatone came, now and then, to vantage-points where the eye leaped forgreat distances across imperceptible valleys to horizons so far awaythat the scattered tree-clumps were blended into an unbroken carpet ofgreen. To the woman these outlooks were unutterably depressing, merelyserving to reveal the vastness of the desolation about her.
At the crest of such a rise she paused and studied the countrycarefully, but without avail. She felt dizzily for the desert bag swungfrom her shoulder, only to find it flat and dry; the galvanizedmouthpiece burned her fingers. With a little shock she remembered thatshe had done this very thing several times before, and her repeatedforgetting frightened her, since it seemed to show that her mind hadbeen slightly unbalanced by the heat. That perhaps explained why thedistant horizon swam and wavered so.
In all probability a man situated as she was would have spoken aloud,in an endeavor to steady himself; but this woman did nothing of thesort. Seating herself in the densest shade she could find--it wasreally no shade at all--she closed her eyes and relaxed--no easy thingto do in such a stifling temperature and when her throat was achingwith drought.
At length she opened her eyes again, only to find that she could makeout nothing familiar. Undoubtedly she was lost; the water-hole might beanywhere. She listened tensely, and the very air seemed to listen withher; the leaves hushed their faint whisperings; a near-by cactus heldits forty fleshy ears alert, while others more distant poised in thesame harkening attitude. It seemed to the woman that a thousand earswere straining with hers, yet no sound came save only the monotonouscrescendo and diminuendo of those locust-cries coming out of nowhereand retreating into the voids. At last, as if satisfied, the leavesbegan to whisper softly again.
Away to her left lay the yellow flood of the Rio Grande, but the woman,though tempted to swing in that direction, knew better than to yield.At least twenty miles of barrens lay between, and she told herself thatshe could never cover such a distance. No, the water-hole was nearer;it must be close at hand. If she could only think a little moreclearly, she could locate it. Once more she tried, as she had triedmany times before, to recall the exact point where she had shot herhorse, and to map in her mind's eye the foot-weary course she hadtraveled from that point onward.
Desert travel was nothing new to her, thirst and fatigue were oldacquaintances, yet she could not help wondering if, in spite of hertraining, in spite of that inborn sense of direction which she hadprided herself upon sharing with the wild creatures, she were fated tobecome a victim of the chaparral. The possibility was remote; death atthis moment seemed as far off as ever--if anything it was too far off.No, she would find the water-hole somehow; or the unexpected wouldhappen, as it always did when one was in dire straits. She was tooyoung and too strong to die yet. Death was not so easily won as this.
Rising, she readjusted the strap of the empty water-bag over hershoulder and the loose cartridge-belt at her hip, then set her dustyfeet down the slope.
Day died lingeringly. The sun gradually lost its cruelty, but a partialrelief from the heat merely emphasized the traveler's thirst andmuscular distress. Onward she plodded, using her eyes as carefully asshe knew how. She watched the evening flight of the doves, thinking toguide herself by their course, but she was not shrewd enough to readthe signs correctly. The tracks she found were old, for the most part,and they led in no particular direction, nowhere uniting into anythinglike a trail. She wondered, if she could bring herself to drink theblood of a jack-rabbit, and if it would quench her thirst. But thethought was repellent, and, besides, she was not a good shot with arevolver. Nor did the cactus offer any relief, since it was only justcoming into bloom, and as yet bore no fruit.
The sun had grown red and huge when at last in the hard-baked dirt shediscovered fresh hoof-prints. These seemed to lead along the line inwhich she was traveling, and she followed them gladly, encouraged whenthey were joined by others, for, although they meandered aimlessly,they formed something more like a trail than anything she had as yetseen. Guessing at their general direction, she hurried on, comingfinally into a region where the soil was shallow and scarcely served tocover the rocky substratum. A low bluff rose on her left, and along itscrest scattered Spanish daggers were raggedly silhouetted against thesky.
She was in a well-defined path now; she tried to run, but her legs wereheavy; she stumbled a great deal, and her breath made strange,distressing sounds as it issued from her open lips. Hounding the steepshoulder of the ridge, she hastened down a declivity into a knot ofscrub-oaks and ebony-trees, then halted, staring ahead of her.
The nakedness of the stony arroyo, the gnarled and stunted thickets,were softened by the magic of twilight; the air had suddenly cooled;overhead the empty, flawless sky was deepening swiftly from blue topurple; the chaparral had awakened and echoed now to the sounds oflife. Nestling in a shallow, flinty bowl was a pool of water, and onits brink a little fire was burning.
It was a tiny fire, overhung with a blackened pot; the odor ofgreasewood and mesquite smoke was sharp. A man, rising swiftly to hisfeet at the first sound, was staring at the new-comer; he was as alertas any wild thing. But the woman scarcely heeded him. She staggereddirectly toward the pond, seeing nothing after the first glance exceptthe water. She would have flung herself full length upon the edge, butthe man stepped forward and stayed her, then placed a tin cup in herhand. She mumbled something in answer to his greeting and the hoarse,raven-like croak in her voice startled her; then she drank, withtrembling eagerness, drenching the front of her dress. The water waswarm, but it was clean and delicious.
"Easy now. Take your time," said the man, as he refilled the cup. "Itwon't give out."
She knelt and wet her face and neck; the sensation was so grateful thatshe was tempted to fling herself bodily into the pool. The man wasstill talking, but she took no heed of what he said. Then at last shesank back, her feet curled under her, her body sagging, her headdrooping. She felt the stranger's hands beneath her arms, felt herselflifted to a more comfortable position. Without asking permission, thestranger unlaced first one, then the other of her dusty boots, seemingnot to notice her weak attempt at resistance. Once he had placed herbare feet in the water, she forgot her resentment in the intense relief.
The man left her seated in a collapsed, semi-conscious state, and wentback to his fire. For the time she was too tired to do more than refillthe drinking-cup occasionally, or to wet her face and arms, but as herpores drank greedily her exhaustion lessened and her vitality returned.
It was dark when for the first time she turned her head toward thecamp-fire and stared curiously at the figure there. The appetizing odorof broiling bacon had drawn her attention, and as if no move wentunnoticed the man said, without lifting his eyes:
"Let 'em soak! Supper'll be ready directly. How'd you like youreggs--if we had any?"
Evidently he expected no reply, for after a chuckle he began to whistlesoftly, in a peculiarly clear and liquid tone, almost like somebird-call. He had spoken with an unmistakable Texas drawl; the womanput him down at once for a cowboy. She settled her back against aboulder and rested.
The pool had become black and mysterious, the sky was studded withstars when he called her, and she laboriously drew on her stockings andboots. Well back from the fire he had arranged a seat for her, using asaddle-blanket for a covering, and upon this she lowered herselfstiffly. As she did so she took fuller notice of the man, and found hisappearance reassuring.
"I suppose you wonder how I--happen to be here," she said.
"Now don't talk 'til you're rested, miss. This coffee is strong enoughto walk on its hands, and I reckon about two cups of it'll rastle youinto shape." As she raised the tin mug to her lips he waved a hand andsmiled. "Drink hearty!" He set a plate of bread and bacon in her lap,then opened a glass jar of jam. "Here's the dulces. I've got a sort ofsweet tooth in my head. I reckon you'll have to make out with this,'cause I rode in too late to rustle any fresh meat, and thedelivery-wagon won't be 'round before morning." So saying, he withdrewto the fire.
The woman ate and drank slowly. She was too tired to be hungry, andmeanwhile the young man squatted upon his heels and watched her throughthe smoke from a husk cigarette. It was perhaps fortunate for her peaceof mind that she could not correctly interpret his expression, for hadshe been able to do so she would have realized something of the turmoilinto which her presence had thrown him. He was accustomed to meetingmen in unexpected places--even in the desert's isolation--but to have anight camp in the chaparral invaded by a young and unescorted woman, tohave a foot-sore goddess stumble out of the dark and collapse into hisarms, was a unique experience and one calculated to disturb a person ofhis solitary habits.
"Have you had your supper?" she finally inquired.
"Who, me? Oh, I'll eat with the help." He smiled, and when his flashingteeth showed white against his leathery tan the woman decided he wasnot at all bad-looking. He was very tall and quite lean, with the longlegs of a horseman--this latter feature accentuated by his high-heeledboots and by the short canvas cowboy coat that reached only to hiscartridge-belt. His features she could not well make out, for the firewas little more than a bed of coals, and he fed it, Indian-like, with atwig or two at a time.
"I beg your pardon. I'm selfish." She extended her cup and plate as aninvitation for him to share their contents. "Please eat with me."
But he refused. "I ain't hungry," he affirmed. "Honest!"
Accustomed as she was to the diffidence of ranch-hands, she refrainedfrom urging him, and proceeded with her repast. When she had finishedshe lay back and watched him as he ate sparingly.
"My horse fell crossing the Arroyo Grande," she announced, abruptly."He broke a leg, and I had to shoot him."
"Is there any water in the Grande?" asked the man.
"No. They told me there was plenty. I knew of this charco, so I madefor it."
"Who told you there was water in the arroyo?"
"Those Mexicans at the little-goat ranch."
"Balli. So you walked in from Arroyo Grande. Lord! It's a good tenmiles straightaway, and I reckon you came crooked. Eh?"
"Yes. And it was very hot. I was never here but once, and--the countrylooks different when you're afoot."
"It certainly does," the man nodded. Then he continued, musingly: "Nowater there, eh? I figured there might be a little." The fact appearedto please him, for he nodded again as he went on with his meal. "Notmuch rain down here, I reckon."
"Very little. Where are you from?"
"Me? Hebbronville. My name is Law."
Evidently, thought the woman, this fellow belonged to the East outfit,or some of the other big cattle-ranches in the Hebbronville district.Probably he was a range boss or a foreman. After a time she said, "Isuppose the nearest ranch is that Balli place?"
"I'd like to borrow your horse."
Mr. Law stared into his plate. "Well, miss, I'm afraid--"
She added, hastily, "I'll send you a fresh one by Balli's boy in themorning."
He looked up at her from under the brim of his hat. "D'you reckon youcould find that goat-ranch by star-light, miss?"
The woman was silent.
"'Ain't you just about caught up on traveling, for one day?" he asked."I reckon you need a good rest about as much as anybody I ever saw. Youcan have my blanket, you know."
The prospect was unwelcome, yet she reluctantly agreed. "Perhaps-- Thenin the morning--"
Law shook his head. "I can't loan you my horse, miss. I've got to stayright here."
"But Balli's boy could bring him back."
"I got to meet a man."
"When will he come?"
"He'd ought to be here at early dark to-morrow evening." Heedless ofher dismay, he continued, "Yes'm, about sundown."
"But--I can't stay here. I'll ride to Balli's and have your horse backby afternoon."
"My man might come earlier than I expect," Mr. Law persisted.
"Really, I can't see what difference it would make. It wouldn'tinterfere with your appointment to let me--"
Law smiled slowly, and, setting his plate aside, selected a freshcigarette; then as he reached for a coal he explained:
"I haven't got what you'd exactly call an appointment. This feller I'mexpectin' is a Mexican, and day before yesterday he killed a man overin Jim Wells County. They got me by 'phone at Hebbronville and told mehe'd left. He's headin' for the border, and he's due here aboutsundown, now that Arroyo Grande's dry. I was aimin' to let you ride hishorse."
"Then--you're an officer?"
"Yes'm. Ranger. So you see I can't help you to get home till my mancomes. Do you live around here?" The speaker looked up inquiringly, andafter an instant's hesitation the woman said, quietly:
"I am Mrs. Austin." She was grateful for the gloom that hid her face."I rode out this way to examine a tract of grazing-land."
It seemed fully a minute before the Ranger answered; then he said, in acasual tone, "I reckon Las Palmas is quite a ranch, ma'am."
"Yes. But we need more pasture."
"I know your La Feria ranch, too. I was with General Castro when we hadthat fight near there."
"You were a Maderista?"
"Yes'm. Machine-gun man. That's a fine country over there. Seems likeGod Almighty got mixed and put the Mexicans on the wrong side of theRio Grande. But I reckon you haven't seen much of La Feria since thelast revolution broke out."
"No. We have tried to remain neutral, but--" Again she hesitated. "Mr.Austin has enemies. Fortunately both sides have spared La Feria."
Law shrugged his broad shoulders. "Oh, well, the revolution isn't over!A ranch in Mexico is my idea of a bad investment." He rose and, takinghis blanket, sought a favorable spot upon which to spread it. Then hehelped Mrs. Austin to her feet--her muscles had stiffened until shecould barely stand--after which he fetched his saddle for a pillow. Hemade no apologies for his meager hospitality, nor did his guest expectany.
When he had staked out his horse for the night he returned to find thewoman rolled snugly in her covering, as in a cocoon. The dying embersflickered into flame and lit her hair redly. She had laid off her feltStetson, and one loosened braid lay over her hard pillow. Thinking herasleep, Law stood motionless, making no attempt to hide his expressionof wonderment until, unexpectedly, she spoke.
"What will you do with me when your Mexican comes?" she said.
"Well, ma'am, I reckon I'll hide you out in the brush till I tame him.I hope you sleep well."
"Thank you. I'm used to the open."
He nodded as if he well knew that she was; then, shaking out hisslicker, turned away.
As he lay staring up through the thorny mesquite branches that roofedhim inadequately from the dew he marveled mightily. A bright,steady-burning star peeped through the leaves at him, and as he watchedit he remembered that this red-haired woman with the still, white facewas known far and wide through the lower valley as "The Lone Star."Well, he mused, the name fitted her; she was, if reports were true,quite as mysterious, quite as cold and fixed and unapproachable, as thetitle implied. Knowledge of her identity had come as a shock, for Lawknew something of her history, and to find her suing for his protectionwas quite thrilling. Tales of her pale beauty were common and not tame,but she was all and more than she had been described. And yet why hadno one told him she was so young? This woman's youth and attractivenessamazed him; he felt that he had made a startling discovery. Was she socold, after all, or was she merely reserved? Red hair above a purewhite face; a woman's form wrapped in his blanket; ripe red lipscaressing the rim of his mean drinking-cup! Those were things to thinkabout. Those were pictures for a lonely man.
She had not been too proud and cold to let him help her. In her fatigueshe had allowed him to lift her and to make her more comfortable. Hotagainst his palms--palms unaccustomed to the touch of woman's flesh--hefelt the contact of her naked feet, as at the moment when he had placedthem in the cooling water. Her feeble resistance had only calledattention to her sex--to the slim whiteness of her ankles beneath hershort riding-skirt.
Following his first amazement at beholding her had come a fantasticexplanation of her presence--for a moment or two it had seemed as ifthe fates had taken heed of his yearnings and had sent her to him outof the dusk--wild fancies, like these, bother men who are much alone.Of course he had not dreamed that she was the mistress of Las Palmas.That altered matters, and yet--they were to spend a long idle daytogether. If the Mexican did not come, another night like this wouldfollow, and she was virtually his prisoner. Perhaps, after all--
Dave Law stirred nervously and sighed.
"Don't this beat hell?" he murmured.