IT happened to Señor Don Ramon Alvarez in the following manner. He was deep in the first sleep of the night and in the middle of the first happy dream when he wakened suddenly. He heard nothing and saw nothing in the blackness of the room, yet he knew perfectly that he was in the greatest danger. So he lay still, concentrating upon the problem. Reason told him that his house was large, his servants many, and the probability of danger reaching him in his own room remote indeed; but when he struggled the hardest to assure himself of his safety, at that very moment instinct protested that he was wrong and that death was stalking softly toward his bed.
He turned his head toward the wall and the door. He could see nothing except those strange, formless objects which sift about in the darkness for those who stare hard enough and long enough into blank space. He reached up and under his pillow. He found the butt of the revolver and squeezed it with a huge relief. In fact, if there were an actual danger confronting him, he would not perish unavenged. Thus he assured himself as he lay there with the perspiration standing upon his forehead and his heart pounding like the thud of a racer's hoofs.
Then at the very moment when he had almost conquered his terror, he received the indubitable proof. For a hand touched him upon his breast, a soft and gliding touch. Still there was nothing to be seen in the darkness above him, and there was not a sound to be heard, but Alvarez, with a strong twist of his body, whirled himself out from under the danger, whatever it might be, and rolled by a complete turn nearer the window. The cat which darts up and away as the shadow of the dog slides near moves not more quickly than did Don Ramon. And even so the blow missed him by a scant fraction of an inch. The bedclothes were jarred tight around his body. He heard the hiss of a blade that thrust its length into the mattress. He heard the faint grunt of one who has wasted a mighty effort, and then he fired into nothingness.
There was no shout of pain or protest, not even the patter of feet in flight. Far away in the house rolled the echo of the explosion, but still there was no sound of human voice. Small wonder that an assassin had come with a knife to hunt him, seeing that he was so insecurely guarded. Would it be hours before the dull-wits, the blockheads, had heard that gun and realized what it meant? Would it be hours before they rushed to his rescue? He could have been killed a hundred times before their efforts could have saved him or revenged him.
He fired again, with a wild panic starting in his brain, and the flash of the second shot showed him the work of the first. The body of a man was sprawled upon the foot of the bed, lying inert, limp, lifeless, as he knew by even that fraction of a second's glance.
Alvarez jumped from the bed and snapped on the electric light. And now he turned at last toward his victim and assailant. He went to the bed and leaned over. The dead man lay upon his face, his hands thrown straight above his head, and in the left hand was the knife which had already been thrust into the bedding in the search for the body of Alvarez. It was a tawny, long-fingered hand with a big emerald on the third finger, a flat-faced emerald upon which was incised a delicate design.
When Alvarez saw that design he whimpered softly and turned his head over his shoulder. If anyone had come through the door at that instant, he would have seen a face which was a veritable mask of tragedy and fear. The eyes were starting forth; the lips were drawn tight and were trembling; his nostrils expanded; his cheeks were sagging. He had grown, of a sudden, ten years older.
Such was the face which Alvarez turned toward the door; he ran to it and turned the key in the lock. Then back he faced to the prostrate form in the bed and, seizing it by the shoulder, he turned it over. He found himself looking down into wide, dull eyes, and upon the lips there was a crushed smile of foolish derision. Alvarez, however, had no regard for the smile. He was only interested in the features. It was a long, lean face. A habitual frown made a crease, even in death, between the eyes. The face was as yellow-tan as the hands. There was the smoke of Indian blood in that complexion, and in the yellow-stained pupils of the eyes.
Alvarez looked upon the dead man with a peculiar horror. He went backward at a staggering pace and fell into the arms of a big, overstuffed chair. He slumped into it so inertly that his head struck against the thick roll at the back of the chair, and he sat there with his eyes riveted upon the wall before him as though he saw the pictures of his fate drawn in the clearest outline before him.
He passed his hand hastily through his hair. It was a dense mass of the thickest silver, and it stood up almost on end after the gesture, giving him an unwonted appearance of wildness and dissipation.
Now came footfalls down the hall. How long had it been since that report from the revolver should have roused the household? It seemed a quarter of an hour to Alvarez, though perhaps excitement had lengthened seconds to minutes for him. He heard a hand turn the knob of the door. Then there was a shout of fear when it failed to open. Others took up the cry, up and down the hall. Perhaps there were a score of tongues in the shout:
"They've murdered the master and locked his door! The señor is dead!"
Alvarez grinned at the door mirthlessly and shook his clenched fist at it, like one who suffers so much that he is glad to see anxiety in others. Then he hastened back to the limp figure upon the bed. He tore the ring from the third finger of the left hand, looked down with a shudder to the diagram upon the face of the emerald, and dropped it in his pocket. Then he went in the greatest haste through the pockets of the deceased. There was a wallet stuffed with papers and with plenty of currency. Certainly hunger and pressing poverty could not have impelled the stranger to the crime which he had attempted, for there was something over a thousand dollars in that wallet. And had he been in need, he might have raised several thousand more upon the emerald, for it was a stone as large and splendid as it was strangely cut. And it was odd indeed to find a jewel so precious, cut as a seal!
Alvarez shoved the wallet under his pillow. In the other pockets of the stranger he discovered nothing of importance. There were cigarettes, a few cigars—thick at the fire end after the Mexican style—and a heavy pocketknife mounted in gold, but without any identifying initials. All of these things Alvarez left in the clothes of the stranger.
Then he turned to the door of his bedroom against which his servants were thundering. He strode to it and cast it wide open, with the result that he nearly received half a dozen bullets in the face, so convinced were his adherents that he was dead and that only his murderer could be living in the room.
They gave back with lowered guns and with yells of joy when they saw that it was Alvarez himself who stood before them. The cook fell upon his knees and threw up his hands in thanksgiving, so that Alvarez was touched, and it took a great deal indeed to move Alvarez.
Yet he would not allow his gentler feelings to control him. As they stood before him, he scowled heavily and let them have the full advantage of his expression before he uttered a word. Then it was to shout at them: "Traitors! Blockheads! Fools! Have you left me here to be massacred while you slept in your beds? I have fed you and clothed you and treated you like my children! I have squandered my money upon you. I have given you all a home. And now I am left here to be murdered in my bed!"
They drew together in a frightened huddle under his torrent of abuse, which was freely interspersed and sprinkled with oaths. They began to protest that the instant they heard the explosion of the gun in the room of the master they had come at once to his rescue, but he shut them off with more curses.
At length he bade them come in and view the villain who would have destroyed his life, and they trooped in together, whispering and gasping with horror until they found the body upon the bed. Then they were speechless and with that as an object lesson before them, Alvarez read to them a long lecture upon the beauties of honest and faithful service to an overgenerous master, for like some other employers of labor Alvarez appreciated his own virtues to the uttermost.
He drove them out, at length, and sent some of them to find the coroner and others to find the sheriff. He himself went back into the bedroom and spent a few minutes walking up and down, up and down, his face twisted with anxiety. It was not the man lying upon the bed to whom he gave a thought. It was rather the presence of some danger in the outer world which troubled him and which caused him, now and again, to pause at one of the big windows and shake his fist at the possibilities which lay somewhere between him and the misty circle of the horizon.
When the sheriff arrived, he found the rich rancher dressed and in his library. The language of Alvarez was strange for a man who has recently escaped from the hands of a secret and midnight murderer, for he told the sheriff that he was sorry for the thing which he had been compelled to do that night. He was confident that no man would willingly assail the life of another man who had not injured him, and that there must have been some cause of great poverty and pressing need which had caused the stranger to invade his home. The sheriff replied with a grunt.
AS a matter of course, Alvarez received nothing but praise for the adroitness with which he had baffled the murderer. It was surmised that the absence of any papers which might identify the stranger, as well as the removal of the ring from his finger—for the pale band was noted as well as the indentation in the flesh of the finger—indicated that the murderer, in taking his chance to kill the rich rancher, had purposely removed all possible means of identifying himself in case he should be killed in the attempt. As for the purpose of destroying Alvarez, it was instantly apparent, for around his neck Alvarez wore the key which opened the safe in which his money for current expenses was kept. And that money was enough to make a large haul.
But, on the whole, the attempt to destroy Don Ramon was considered lucky for the district for it was the immediate cause of the celebration of a great festival by the rancher. He wished to indicate his joy at his escape, and for that reason he organized a rodeo which quite put in the shade other affairs of the kind.
There was one fault to be found with his plans, and that was that there was only a week's notice given. However, the instant his announcement was made, it was carried in all the newspapers of the range towns, and four days were enough to bring in 'punchers from the distant sections. Furthermore, the prizes were of such a nature that every skillful man along the range was sure to come if he possibly could, for Don Ramon had dipped deeply into his pocket for the sake of the festival. There were handsome cash prizes for every event. And the events ranged from fancy roping to foot racing, from horse-breaking to knife-throwing, from boxing to shooting. There were events in which cowboys were sure to excel, and there were events in which vaqueros were certain to excel, and there were others in which Indians would stand forth. Who but an Indian, for instance, could be expected to win a twenty-four-hour race across the desert and the mountains?
On the whole it would be a great spectacle, and people immediately began mustering for it. But, in the meantime, there was a single blot upon the happiness of the occasion, and that was the news that Don Ramon was confined to his bed, and that he might not be able to view the sports of the great day. The nature of his sickness was not known. Some held that it was the result of a nervous breakdown caused by the crisis through which he had just passed and others, again, declared that the poor don was suffering merely from old age.
However that might be, Don Ramon did not leave his bed in the interim before the sports began. Neither did he rise on the morning of the festival, but sent his majordomo to distribute the prizes in his name. He stayed in his bed attended by his doctors and surrounded by soft-footed servants. It was not until the late afternoon of the day that he arrived in the field. He came there, indeed, barely in time for the last and the greatest of all the contests. That was the shooting.
Ordinarily, gun play held secondary place in such affairs, if it appeared at all, but on this occasion it was given a great emphasis by the prize which was offered. It was a prize calculated to attract every red-blooded cowpuncher who had ever had any skill with guns in his life. It was the sort of prize which made even the spectators yearn to be in the lists taking part in the trial of skill. In a word, the prize which Don Ramon was offering was his famous chestnut stallion, El Capitán. He was a six-year-old king among horses, and had been brought to the West especially to give Don Ramon's ranch an unequaled stock of finest horseflesh. El Capitán had cost the don a trip to England and many thousands of dollars. El Capitán, as Don Ramon christened the horse, was immediately considered an object of public pride by the entire community. Ever since it had been announced that he was to be the prize for the shooting, people had begun to wonder if Don Ramon had gone mad or whether the stallion was not so wonderful after all. The result was that for weeks crowds had come to watch him in his corral. El Capitán was not much under seventeen hands in height, but for all his bulk he was built like a picture horse. His gait was as light and mincing as any dancing pony's. His head was all that a horse's head should be, a very poem of beauty, courage, pride and great-heartedness. And that this miracle among horses should be given as the prize in a shooting match was almost too strange to be true. Don Ramon was forced to give an explanation through his majordomo. His ranch was stocked with El Capitán's progeny and therefore it was possible for him to part with his favorite. But most of all he was giving the stallion to encourage marksmanship and practice with guns among the cowpunchers of the range, for he declared that the greatest of all frontier accomplishments was falling into disuse in the new century, and it was his ambition to restore it.. Beginning with this year he would offer an annual prize for the best shot in the West. And each prize would be almost as splendid as the one he was offering this season.
This explanation was accepted for what it might be worth, but the cowpunchers were frankly incredulous. El Capitán was worth a small fortune. It was still incredible that he should be put up for the prize in a day's sport. However, having been carefully examined, he was pronounced without a single flaw. Altogether he was matchless. In England he had not been fast enough to keep up with the light-footed sprinters on the tracks and so he had not been of use either as a racer or as a sire of racers. But where the course was to last all day and where the track was not a smoothed turf but a wild way over mountains and sandy deserts, El Capitán kept going where other horses dropped beside the way.
The very best men in the country came to vie with one another in the contest. It was an unusual struggle, unlike any that had ever been held before. It began with rifle shooting at close and long range. It continued with rifle shooting at moving objects. And it closed with revolver work, and skill with the revolver counted against skill with the rifle as three is to one! For the revolver, said Don Ramon in his announcement, should be the unique weapon of the Western ranges.
All centered, then, upon adroitness with the smaller weapon. In the beginning the contestants were lined up and asked to try their skill upon stationary targets. These targets were large-headed nails driven into boards and placed at such a distance that they were almost invisible! Five men came through this contest. The others were hopelessly distanced. Then the five were required to shoot at bricks thrown into the air at a uniform height and distance and, when that part was over, they were made to mount their horses and ride at a gallop between two rows of posts on each of which a small can was placed. Those cans had to be blown off, and there was only one way in which it could be done. The horse must be controlled with the knees and the voice, and there must be a revolver in each hand.
The five set their teeth and prepared for the crucial tests. They had weathered the brick shooting well enough. Shooting from the firm ground at a moving object was one thing, but shooting from a moving object at a stationary point was another. The difference is that which exists between guns on shore and guns at sea. Everyone knows that a single large caliber gun on land is equal to a whole battleship armed with a dozen such guns afloat in the water.
So, with their horses prepared, their guns ready, the five awaited the signal. It was given and Shorty Galbraith, famous in song and story in spite of his scant forty years, went gallantly down the rows. His horse cantered with the rhythmical precision of a circus animal. It rocked slowly ahead, and from either hand Shorty blazed away at the cans. His bullets flicked off the first three pair. Then he began to miss with his left-hand gun and scored two blanks with his port weapon, a thing which so upset him that with his last two shots he missed on both sides. He had knocked off eight out of twelve cans, however, and that was a score amazingly high. It would be extraordinary if it were much improved upon by any of the remaining four champions. For Shorty was almost ambidextrous and could use his right hand almost as well as his left.
The applause which greeted Shorty's effort had hardly died down when old Chapman, hero of a score of fights in the old days and still as steady of eye and hand as ever, started for the posts. He scored a double miss on the first pair of posts. But the next four pair went off as if by magic, and exultant cheers were beginning from his supporters when he missed as completely on the last pair as he had missed on the first. However, he had tied with Shorty. And he reined his horse to one side, prepared heartily to wish bad luck to the remaining three contestants. Of these the first one to make the attempt failed almost completely. He knocked off one of the first pair, but then his horse started forward too fast, and he succeeded in bringing down only three of the remaining targets. But the marksman who followed called up a hysteria of cheering by actually bringing down nine of the cans. So loud was the yelling that the old fellow had to take off his hat to the thunder and wave it at his admirers. He was a veteran frontiersman, tall, lean, with a head on which flashed many a gray hair when he had removed his sombrero. His name was Sam Calkins and, though he was not as well known as some of his competitors, his figure, his stately bearing, his grave and reserved manner of speech complied with all the traditions of the West. Everyone instantly wished him well, particularly because of the character of his single opponent who remained to rival his score.
The latter had won the disapproval of the crowd earlier in the match. In the first place, instead of the usual cowpuncher's outfit, he was dressed in riding trousers of neat whipcord, and his boots of soft, black leather were polished like two dark mirrors. The very hat upon his head was new, and instead of a wide-brimmed sombrero it was a close-brimmed affair which set jauntily a little upon one side of his head. He was set off with a red bow tie. But, above all, instead of sitting in a true range saddle, he was mounted upon a smooth English affair, with short stirrups. But his manners had given even more offense than his clothes. He had joked and laughed through half of the contests. He was still smiling as he reined his horse toward the beginning of the double row of posts. And the crowd, with a scowl of cordial dislike, held its breath. Not that it actually thought that such a hero as the efficient Sam Calkins could be bested by this stranger who was so obviously not of the range, but because they dreaded even the hundredth chance. Moreover, everyone had to admit that Duds Kobbe, as they had nicknamed the stranger, had shot amazingly well hitherto.
He went to the starting point amidst loud yells of advice.
"Mind your necktie, Duds."
"The girls are all lookin' at you, kid!"
"Your mama'd be proud to see you, Duds!"
To this he responded with another of his laughs, and then started his horse down the gantlet, and with such careless speed that his rate of going was half again as great as that of any of the previous riders. And, seeing his nonchalance, the crowd waited with held breath, dreading, hoping.
Crash went his guns, and the first two cans were blown from the tops of the posts. He fired again and the second pair went down. And the pace of his galloping horse had actually increased. Again he fired, and the third pair went down. Still he was not turning his head from side to side, but he rode with his face straight forward and seemed to be sighting his guns either from the corners of his eyes or by instinct. It was like wizardry!
There was a heavy groan of relief when he missed with his right hand gun on the fourth pair. There was an actual shout when he failed with his left hand gun on the fifth. There remained the final pair. Men noticed in the interim that stanch Sam Calkins had not ceased rolling his cigarette, and that at the very instant of the crisis he was actually reaching for a match. He was upholding the good stoical Western tradition in the time-honored way.
But in the meantime young Kobbe was at the final pair of posts. He shot the left hand can cleanly from its post. He had tied Sam at the worst! And at the best he might yet... The crowd refused to consider the possibility. The groan took an audible sound of a word: "miss!"
And it seemed as if there were a magic in that wish. For when he fired his twelfth shot the can was not flicked from the post top. A loud yell of exultation rose from the crowd. However, that cry stopped in mid-breath, for the can had been grazed by the bullet and was rocking and tottering in its place. It reeled to one side. It staggered to the other and would have settled down in its place in quiet, as many of the bystanders afterward declared, had not a gust of wind of uncanny violence at this instant cuffed the can away and tumbled it to the ground!
THERE could not have been a stronger proof of the unpopularity of the stranger than the groan with which the crowd witnessed this piece of good fortune. But they were stunned by what followed. For Duds Kobbe, riding back from the conclusion of the trial, approached the judges, who were three old ranchers, now sour-faced with disappointment, and assured them that he would not accept a win which had been given him by the wind and chance rather than his own skill.
The judges could hardly believe their ears and, though in strict justice they should have awarded the prize to him and insisted that there should be no further contest, they were only human, and all three of them, if the truth must be admitted, had placed their money upon the celebrated Sam.
In the meantime, Sam had half-heartedly protested that he could not accept another chance since he had been fairly beaten, but in the middle of his protest he glanced across to the place where El Capitán was being held, and the sun at that instant flashed along the silken flanks of the great stallion. It was too much for Sam, and his protest died, half uttered. But the news of what had happened swept in stride through the crowd. It was one of those things that make men shake their heads and then see with new eyes. When they looked across to the shining form of the stallion as he turned and danced in the sunshine and, when they realized that a man had voluntarily given up that king of horses for the sake of some delicate scruple of conscience, they prepared to revise their opinions of the stranger. They looked at him through different eyes, and what they saw was something more than the oddness of his appearance. It had been impossible, up to this time, for the spectators to see anything in Duds Kobbe except his extraordinary clothes. Now they discovered that he was a fine-looking fellow, a shade under twenty-five years, straight, wide-shouldered, big-necked, spare of waist, and with long and sinewy arms. He was the very ideal of the athlete, as a matter of fact, and the closer they looked at him the better they liked him.
If his skill with guns had not proclaimed him a man, his fine rich tan, his clear voice, and the manner in which he sat his saddle would have convinced the discerning that there was real metal in him. And when the two sat their horses at the beginning of the double row of posts, when the cans had been replaced, and when Sam had loaded his guns with infinite care, it would have been hard for the crowd to pick its favorite. Sam was a fine fellow, but he had showed himself a little too eager to accept the proffered generosity of the stranger. Kobbe had shown himself above and beyond all meanness.
Sam rode first, as before. He duplicated his original feat, knocking off nine of the cans, but Kobbe, riding down the line, actually blew eleven of the twelve from their places and was rewarded with a roar of applause from the bystanders. The evening was growing heavy in the west when they brought Duds Kobbe to the chestnut horse. Instantly they were aware of an anachronism. For El Capitán carried a heavy Western range saddle, and the winner of the prize was dismounting from an English pad. But they were left in doubt for only an instant. Duds Kobbe bounded down from the one horse and onto the back of the other without pause. He swept off his hat and slapped El Capitán across the neck with it and at the same time pricked him with the spurs.
Never before had the great stallion been treated in such fashion. He had been surrounded by tenderness all of his days. Now he was used like a common range pony. He tried first to jump into the center of the sky. Then he strove to knock a hole in the earth with his hoofs and stiffened legs. After that he passed through a frantic maze of bucking, only to come out on the farther side, so to speak, with his rider as gay in the saddle as ever, still slapping him with the annoying hat, still tickling his sides with the spurs. El Capitán stopped, shook his head, and looked back to consider this curious puzzle in the saddle upon his back.
So the contest ended and passed into legend. The legend grew until it reached amazing proportions, and on this day they will tell the inquisitive stranger how Duds Kobbe tossed his revolvers into the air and caught them again between every shot. But when Duds was riding off the field, surrounded by laughing, shouting, good-natured men, a dark-faced fellow approached him from the side and rode close.
"Señor Alvarez," he said, "is eager to see Señor Kobbe," and with that he turned and rode away. Kobbe, as soon as he could be rid of his well-wishers and had shaken hands with Sam, who buried his disappointment behind a smile, turned the head of the chestnut toward the house of Alvarez.
He did not stay for the feast at which all the other participants gathered that night, where the long tables were spread with food enough for all the villagers and all the spectators. They were served with the meat of steers roasted whole, to say nothing of scores of kids, fresh from the pits where they had been faithfully turned by the sons and daughters of the ranch hands on the wide lands of Alvarez. There were chickens and geese stewed in immense pots over open fires. In fact, people were staggered when they thought of the amount of money which the rancher must have expended upon this banquet. But it helped them to understand how he could have offered as the prize for the shooting contest the glorious El Capitán.
Duds Kobbe had adapted himself with the most perfect ease to the big range saddle which was on the back of El Capitán, and which the generosity of Alvarez made a part of the prize. He passed deeper into the domains of Alvarez. He crossed, in the first place, a long drift of rolling hills, covered with rich grass, and now dotted with fat cattle. Then he went on to a valley which was under close cultivation with the plough. It was soil rich enough for truck farming. Vegetables, berries, fruits were produced in vast bulk from that valley. And this was only a simple unit in the estate. He rode on into an upland district which was a sort of plateau whose level top afforded thousands of acres for the raising of wheat, barley, oats, and hay. From the plateau rose a range of high hills, covered with sturdy pine forests. And these were regularly planted and cut, as he could see in passing through. Beyond this was another huge domain of cow country, all good range. And past the extremity of this district he arrived at the lofty trees, the sweeping lawns where a thousand sprinklers were whirring, and the white walls and the red roofs of the house of Alvarez itself.
But what Duds had seen in his approach had been merely an outer segment, a mere wedge of the whole estate. It swept away on all hands in a great circle. No doubt there were far richer things than he had seen. In the upper hills—or mountains they might be called—he understood that there were rich copper mines. These, too, were part of the property of Alvarez, and with the lumber, the fruits, the cattle, the horses, the minerals, he could understand how a single horse and a single saddle might not seem too rich a prize for a shooting contest. For the wealth of Alvarez was a thing which he himself no doubt did not understand and perhaps he could not have guessed half its extent.
There was something inspiring in the thought of such money, for it made of Alvarez a king among men in wealth and power. Every man who passed through a corner of the estate of the rich Spanish-American could not help but feel his spirit expand at the thought of possibly rivaling Don Ramon.
Kobbe came to the patio and there reined the stallion, for the gates in front of the garden were secured. He looked through the bars at the wide façade and the ponderous overhanging eaves and the great, nobly proportioned windows of the house. It had the simplicity of a true Spanish house of the Southwest, but it had the dignity of an Athenian temple. Duds Kobbe, though he was not easily impressed, gaped like a child at the big building. Presently he found that a dark-skinned servant was grinning at him, nearby. And Kobbe grinned back at him. "Very big," said Kobbe frankly. "Very old?" He asked this in good faith.
The servant shrugged his shoulders. "Five years," he said at last.
"Then Señor Alvarez built it?" asked Kobbe with manifest surprise.
"No. It was built by another man."
"I forget. He died afterward. He owed the señor money, and so the señor took the house."
"Ah," said Duds softly. "I thought it would be something like that. Will you tell him that I am here? He has sent for me."
"What name?" asked the servant.
"Kobbe," said Duds. And the servant went to execute the order.
THE mozo returned almost at once and opened the gate, bringing a companion with him who took charge of El Capitán. Then he led Duds Kobbe into the house to Alvarez. The latter was seated in a little study whose walls were lined with books—books which were decorative rather than for use. They were all in extensive sets of green and red and yellow leather, decorated with expensive tooling in gold. And Kobbe could tell at a glance that their set and ordered ranks were not broken by the hands of casual readers. As for the volume which lay on the table near the hand of Alvarez, it was placed there for effect to complete the picture. Kobbe knew all this the instant he stepped through the door. And he knew, furthermore, that he was seated facing the window, while the master of the house had his back to it so that the latter could study him more carefully while his own face remained in the shadow.
"You are kind," said Alvarez, "in coming to me so quickly."
"I hoped to see you at the barbecue," said Kobbe.
"I am not well," said Alvarez. "The doctors have me on a short rein, and I cannot follow my own wishes. Otherwise I should be down there now. But I was long enough at the ground to see you shoot, señor, and to admire you for your skill."
"My horse gave me an easy seat, that's the answer," answered Kobbe smilingly. "But what is it you need of me, Señor Alvarez?"
"You have not organized such a festival for nothing."
"Of course not. I have told everyone that my purpose is to begin a long series of such contests. Cool heads and steady hands and straight eyes are worth a great deal, señor, and I hope that my little festival will make men value them every year more and more."
"Of course that is one purpose, and a very generous one," replied Kobbe. "But there is another reason. There is a reason which has to do with you, Señor Alvarez."
The latter shrugged his shoulders. "I cannot understand," he said.
"If you had given cash prizes, I should not doubt you, but when you give El Capitán..."
"After all, a fine horse is only money in another form."
"You made a long trip to England to buy him. He is of great value to you."
"But here he is hardly used for work. He needs to be on a plain and through the mountains with a good rider like yourself, señor. I made him one of the prizes for that reason!"
"I shall believe that if you wish."
"You speak strangely, señor."
"And you, Señor Alvarez, act very strangely."
The rancher flushed. "In what way?"
"You have placed men to watch me even while I am talking to you."
"A touch of wind moved a branch of that tree outside the window. It showed me a fellow crouched in the forking of the limbs. He can peer through the leaves and watch everything that passes in the room. And he has a short rifle in his hands so that if he sees a game worth bringing down... you understand me, señor?"
Alvarez bit his lip and grew even a brighter red. He seemed to hesitate for an instant whether to deny or admit that his guest had seen the truth.
"You are very frank," he said at last.
"I must be," answered Duds Kobbe. "If I am to be of use to you and you to me, we must be frank. Must we not?"
"Then tell me your opinion. What do you see that is a mystery? What do you understand my motives to be?"
"In holding the rodeo?"
"The rodeo is a mask. What you wanted was the shooting contest only. But it would seem too strange if you sent out invitations for that alone. So you arranged a whole rodeo of which the shooting was only a single part."
"You are very sure!"
"And what could my purpose have been?"
"To find a fast and accurate shot."
"Señor, you grow omnipotent!"
"I am sorry if I am wrong."
"Why should I need a fast and accurate shot?"
"To take care of you, Señor Alvarez, in place of the doctors."
"What manner of foolish talk is this?"
"Only the truth."
"Do you mean that I wish a gunfighter to cure me of sickness?"
"Of the sort of sickness that troubles you a gunfighter could take much better care than a doctor."
"And what is my ailment, señor?"
Duds Kobbe glanced hastily around the room to assure himself they were alone. Then he leaned a little toward his companion so that he could bridge the distance between them with the softest of voices.
"You sickness is called acute fear of sudden death, Señor Alvarez!"
The rich man half started from his chair. For a moment he remained with his eyes staring, his lips parted, his face the picture of amazement, and his right hand raised in a singular gesture.
"Do not give the signal," said Kobbe, "for, if you do, that fellow in the tree will start shooting at me. And if he does, I shall have to try my hand at you!"
Alvarez recovered himself with a gasp and sank back. "What under the blue heaven has put this idea into your head?"
"A number of things."
"Name a few, then."
"The first sight of El Capitán. A man does not give up such a horse unless he is in fear of something no less than death."
"This is only an opinion you are giving me, not a fact."
"Well, then, for the facts. I come out here and am brought before the master of the house. I find him reported to be an invalid, hardly able to journey to the field of the rodeo. I come to his house and find him a sturdy-looking man with a fine, clear color..."
"There are maladies which do not show in the face, my friend," said Alvarez calmly.
"But if you are not sick, what then is wrong with you? Fear can be like a disease, I have been told. Suppose that fear has kept you in your house, since the attempt was made on your life."
"If I considered myself in danger, there are capable sheriffs in this country. They would take charge of my problem."
"Suppose that the power you fear is something that a sheriff cannot help. As for sheriffs and men with guns, you could fill your house with them. There is the fellow in the tree outside the window, for instance."
"The blockhead!" exclaimed Alvarez. "He is a pig without sense!"
"He had not counted on the wind. That is all."
"But in short, my plan in holding the rodeo was to secure the most capable bodyguard that I could find and, in order to do that, I would spare no expense and would use even my finest horse as a bait... a horse which my daughter loves passionately... yet I give him up as the bait to draw the best man into my trap?"
"That," said Kobbe, "is exactly my idea. Am I wrong?"
The other hesitated a moment, drumming on the arm of his chair and looking straight before him as though, for a moment, he had forgotten the presence of his guest.
"You are entirely right," he said at last. 'I am living in fear of sudden death. I have been existing through this past week in the fear of a knife in the back or a bullet through the heart. And the law I cannot call into my use. How can I tell that the men of the law themselves will not be bribed?"
"How can you tell that I may not be bribed?" asked Kobbe.
"By your face," said Alvarez. "There are certain things which we know by instinct. I think that this is one thing. We know a man as we know a note of music from all other notes. The difference appears to the ear alone and cannot be described. In that way I know that you are an honest man."
"And you know nothing of me except what you have seen?"
"I am not a fool. Do you think that I would put my head into the mouth of a strange lion? I know a great deal more about you than you will imagine. The instant the rodeo began, I started inquiries about every one of the men who were entered for the shooting contest. About you I learned that you were born in Wyoming, were taken East when your uncle with whom you were living... because your father had been dead for ten years... struck it rich in the mines. That you were educated in the East, but that when your uncle lost his money you returned to the West again."
"Then," said Kobbe, "you know my father's name?"
"Of course. His name was John Turner. And your name is John Kobbe Turner."
Kobbe, or Turner, as he had just been called, sat stiffly in his chair. Some of the color had left his cheeks. And his eyes had grown as grave and as brilliant as the eyes of a great beast of prey. Alvarez winced before that stare, but he maintained a steady smile as well as he could.
"What more," asked Kobbe, "do you know about me?"
"That you are a straight shot," said Alvarez. "And that is all I wish to know."
"What is your proposition?" asked Kobbe.
"A salary which you can name at your own pleasure. You will have a room next to my room. It will be your duty to live night and day with weapons at hand ready to come to my help at my first signal. I shall have other guards working outside the house, but if peril comes from within, then I shall have you to strike for me. What do you say to this, Señor Turner?"
"Kobbe, if you please!"
"By all means, Señor Kobbe."
"Give me a moment to think it over."
"As long as you wish."
Kobbe, as he preferred to be called, stood up and walked slowly back and forth across the little room and finally stood in front of the window looking out upon the garden and the tree which stood in it, holding the guard. He was seeing nothing but his own thoughts, however, and these brought a black frown to his forehead until, out of a side path, a girl walked into his view, singing. She had pushed a small red rose into her black hair. Her face was tilted up by her song and her olive cheeks were bright. Slowly she crossed that part of the garden which Kobbe could overlook, until the weight of his eyes seemed to warn her. She paused suddenly, glanced across to him, and with an exclamation of alarm fled from his view.
He turned slowly to Alvarez. "I shall stay," he said.
THE stipulations of Alvarez were strict. Kobbe, so long as he cared to stay on the place and with the work, must never leave the immediate precincts of the house and the gardens. He must be ready at any time to accompany Alvarez on journeys, no matter of what extent, and he must hold himself ready, day and night, to come to the defense of the older man with all his skill and with unfailing courage. In return, he was to receive a handsome salary, a chair at the table of Alvarez, a mozo to look after his needs, and every possible liberty of motion within the house and its immediate grounds. It was not necessary that he be constantly near the person of Alvarez. It was, however, vital that he be within calling distance at all times.
And Kobbe accepted, making only one exception—which was that he be allowed to take one hour's freedom with El Capitán before his period of service began. And so, a few minutes later, he was galloping across the hills at a round rate, with the big chestnut stretching away with a stride as easy as flowing water and almost as smooth.
Kobbe held straight on until he came to a thicket between two hills. There he paused and raised a sharp whistle. It was answered almost at once, and after a moment a second horseman broke out from a covert and rode hastily down to meet him.
The newcomer was a stately fellow, well past middle age, arrow straight in the saddle, with a dark skin and a black eye and a sort of foreign gentility which was as easily distinguishable as the color of his eyes, but which was difficult to describe. He greeted Kobbe by raising his hand in salutation.
"Something has gone wrong, my son," he said as he drew close and reined his horse to a halt.
"It has," said Kobbe.
"What is it?"
"I can't raise a hand against him."
"I've made up my mind. I cannot attempt to injure him."
A flush of hot anger settled in the face of the older man but, like a person of experience, he did not speak for an instant, allowing the flush to subside a little and some of the sparkles to pass out of his eyes.
"What has happened?" he asked at length.
"In the first place, he trusted me."
"And so, in the old days, did we trust him."
"Señor Lopez, his crime was committed a long time ago."
"But it has never been forgotten."
"Perhaps you are wrong to keep it so close to your heart all these years."
"Your father would not have been of that opinion."
"You cannot judge. My father was a man who often changed his mind. I remember it very well."
"He could change his mind, but he could never change it about his murderer."
"Murderer? I cannot help thinking that that word is too strong."
"Dastardly murder, John, of a man who trusted him and to whom he owed a great deal."
"Nothing has ever been known for certain."
"We have evidence which only a fool could doubt."
"I shall be sorry to have you write me down a fool."
The older man shrugged his shoulders.
"I shall try to be very temperate," he said. "I have no desire to anger you, my boy. I know that whatever conclusion you have come to has the gravest reasons behind it. For you are your father's son, after all, and being his son you must have the strongest desire in your heart to revenge him."
"If I were sure that Don Ramon were guilty..."
"Call him by his true name."
"Why not by the new name? Under the old name I hate him. Under the new name I have found him gentle, courteous, and willing to trust me."
"So did we all find him until the time for the test came."
"But consider that for ten years he has been living in this country, and he has taught his servants and his neighbors to love him. They all swear by Don Ramon."
"So they might have sworn by your father, if he had been alive. But this treacherous hound removed him from the earth."
"It is not proved. Besides... it is possible for men to change, señor."
"Some men can change from good to better, or from bad to worse. But no man can change his essential nature."
"I cannot help doubting the truth of that."
"Other people have doubted it, but it is always proved."
"If there were not such a thing as repentance, why should people be punished and not destroyed? But society believes that men who have committed one fault may not necessarily be all bad. They may change and learn better ways."
"The spots on the leopard will not change, my son."
"What evil has he done for ten years?"
"He has grown fat with money which is not his. It is easy to be a giver of charity when one is passing on stolen money."
"He has a straight, clear eye, and he talks like a man."
"But he has the heart of a devil under that eye, my young friend. What will the ghost of your murdered father think when he looks down and sees that you are reconciled to his murderer?"
"He will think that I am doing only what my conscience tells me to do."
"Has the money of Ramon, as you call him, nothing to do with it?"
"Sir?" said Kobbe coldly.
"I am not accusing you. I am only asking you to open your eyes to motives which you yourself may not be aware of."
"His money has no weight with me."
"You are a remarkable young man, then."
"Your tongue is sharp today, señor."
"What has happened? This morning you called him a snake that should be treated as a snake is treated. How has he changed in the meantime?"
"He has changed by being known."
"John, you are talking lightly to me. Do I deserve no better than this from you?"
"I am talking to you as honestly as I know how."
"Tell me this, then. What do you intend to do?"
"I have taken a new position." He raised his head and looked Lopez firmly in the eye, and yet he flushed in spite of himself, in shame for the thoughts which he knew would spring into the mind of his companion when what he had done was known.
"And that position?" asked Lopez, turning pale.
"You have already guessed it."
"I pray to heaven that I have not guessed correctly."
"Very well, then. I'll tell you in so many words. I already know the way in which you will judge me. I only ask you to keep the spoken words to yourself. Yes, I have taken a position as the bodyguard of Don Ramon!"
There was a groan from Lopez. "Treason!" he cried at last.
"No," said Kobbe, "but a love of fair play."
"Is it fair play to leave us and be bought up by the money which our enemy has stolen from us?"
"I know this much," said Kobbe slowly, making a great effort to control himself, "that Don Ramon was always accused by you of having committed a crime which is too detestable to name. Perhaps he is guilty. But my personal feeling after meeting him face to face and talking with him in his own house is that he cannot be guilty of such a crime. If I am wrong, I am very sorry."
"You have not only made up your mind that he is innocent, but you have determined to fight for him?"
"There is no one else in the world who could fight on his side. There is no one else who knows the names and the faces of the men who are against him. There is no one else who can tell that he is being hounded down by a conspiracy."
"There is hardly a better word for it. You have tried him according to your own prejudices and not according to the law. You are going to butcher him like a dog if you can. I tell you Señor Lopez, it is going to be my work to keep you from it!"
The eyes of the other flashed fire, and his lips worked for a moment before he could speak in answer.
"Go back to him, then," he said at last. "Tell him the names, describe our faces, tell our purpose. He will have the hills combed with posses before midnight has come. He will hunt us down, perhaps. And rather than be caught, we will die fighting, be assured! Our blood will be upon your head! Farewell!"
"Wait," said Kobbe, greatly moved. "You have misunderstood me. I shall not whisper a word that will identify or accuse a single one of you. He already knows something. He knows that there is a conspiracy against him. He knows that I am my father's son. And yet he seems to feel that I cannot be one of the plot to stab him in the darkness. It is going to be my purpose to make him know that he has not been wrong in trusting me; but at the same time, I had rather have my hands cut off than to speak a word against you. Will you try to believe that?"
"How can I believe that you are able to feel for both sides in a fight?"
"You must believe me, nevertheless."
"Yet you will be with him in his house and you have sworn that if he is attacked you will defend him."
"Do you see what that means, John?"
"In what way?"
"It means that you, being our enemy, we must protect ourselves from your interference."
"John, we have sworn to stay together until we have destroyed our enemy. If we find an obstacle in our path, even if it is the son of the man we loved most in the world, do you think that we can afford to hesitate, knowing that we will be truer to his memory and to his wishes than you?"
"You will try to get rid of me, then?"
"If you stay with him, we must. John, if you feel that we are wrong, stand aside and take no part on either side. I tell you, you cannot save him except by betraying us to the law. And if you try to foil us with your single hand, you only bring destruction on your own head as well as upon his. Do you understand me?"
"I wish that I had never heard you speak as you have just done."
"It is the truth."
"Then go back and tell the others that I have made up my mind."
"What shall I tell them?"
"That I am staying with Don Ramon, and that if he is attacked I shall shoot to kill in his defense."
"God forgive you, John."
"And may God forgive you, Señor Lopez. But I swear to you that if you yourself come near Don Ramon, I shall shoot you through the body if my gun is out before yours."
"And I swear to you, John, that your death is not twenty-four hours away!"
They reined back their horses until a considerable distance lay between them. Then Kobbe twisted his mount around and sent the chestnut flying down the hollow.
BUT the words of Lopez were working most effectually when Kobbe was far out of his sight, for he turned back and forth through his mind what his late companion had said and he began to confess to himself that it was not a true faith in the honesty of Alvarez which kept him with the latter. It was because he had caught one glimpse of the girl who walked through the garden, and he knew that if he left the service of Don Ramon he was also leaving behind him all hope of ever seeing her again. And see her again he must, for in that instant she had been stamped into his soul. She had added something to his life. She had changed him so utterly that it seemed to Kobbe that he was no longer the man he had been before that vision in the garden. He was happier; he was far stronger. How else could he have faced Lopez without being overawed by that solemn gentleman?
Yet, knowing guiltily that it was for the sake of the girl that he had denied the arguments of Lopez, he could not feel any great repentance. All shadows disappeared in the glorious thought that he was soon to meet her at the dinner table.
He was back at the house so late that he had barely time to get ready for the evening meal, and when he went into the library he found the girl and Don Ramon already there and waiting.
She was presented to him as Señorita Mantiez. It was a great surprise to Kobbe, but he made up his mind that she must be a protégée of the rich man—perhaps his niece, perhaps the daughter of some unfortunate friend who had died. But he had no energy left for the determination of her place in the household. All his wits were occupied in the task of watching her with consummate attention and at the same time screening that examination from the eyes of Don Ramon.
The señorita wore a dress of yellow lace—indeed, it was closer to ivory than to yellow. And she wore no ornament whatever, saving a single ring with a single ruby set in it. It was a marvelous stone, and Kobbe wondered why women ever wore more than one jewel, and that a ruby. Sometimes it sent an arrow of crimson through the water glass. Sometimes it flashed near the face of the girl and made her seem pale and her eyes great and dark and tragically dull. And again its flash sparkled with the chime of her laughter. And again, it was a bright touch of fire that gave brilliance to her gesture.
And she made so lovely a picture as she chatted with them that Kobbe could hardly answer her when she spoke to him. He could only pray that his silence would be taken as absent-mindedness or as dullness of wit. Anything was preferable to their knowledge that he was lost in the worship of her beauty.
Her first name was Miriam, and the mere turning of that name through his mind enchanted Kobbe. Miriam Mantiez! It seemed to him that there was soft mystery and exquisite charm in that phrase. And he repeated it gently to himself.
But in the meantime the rancher had said: "You must not trouble Señor Kobbe with talk, Miriam. He is busy with his thoughts. And one of those thoughts may be worth a very great deal to me. Who knows what he has discovered or what he has seen or where he has been in that ride which he took just before dinner?"
There was a very patent query behind this placid question. But Kobbe returned no answer.
"Unless," continued Alvarez, chuckling, "he was considering the question of the man in the tree. You see," he added, "that Miriam knows all my thoughts, all my plans, all my past, all my future, all my hopes. And you may talk with perfect freedom before her."
Kobbe murmured that this was interesting, but that his ride had showed him nothing of importance.
"Except a look at the landscape?" queried the rancher.
"Yes," said Kobbe.
"And nothing else?"
It was a very sharp touch and Kobbe straightened a little under the prick of it.
"What do you mean, Señor Alvarez?"
"Nothing," said the rancher, smiling broadly. "But there are people as well as trees growing on my estate, you know."
It was plain that he had been informed of the interview between Kobbe and Lopez. No doubt he had been told the name of the other, that one of his men had watched the meeting from a distance. And the connotation of this was that Alvarez was keeping spies upon the trail of Kobbe every moment of his stay on the place. Yet when Kobbe met the eyes of Alvarez steadily, the latter turned his glance away, and it was plain that he was not suspicious about the results of the conversation. It was almost as though his spy had heard the exact words of the talk between him and Lopez. And Kobbe could not keep a slight flush from his face. At the same time he felt two things about Alvarez. The one was that the rich don was as full of craft as a serpent. The other was that the complacent laughter of Alvarez showed that he was certain that Kobbe was entirely pledged to his service. And one conclusion was as disagreeable as the other to Kobbe.
Dinner ended. They settled down in a high-vaulted music room and Miriam played for them at a piano and then sang. In the pauses the beat and faint humming of a distant banjo kept breaking in from far away by the servants' quarters beyond the house. Kobbe moved closer to the window until he could look out, and he saw two men pacing ceaselessly up and down on the inside of the wall of hewn rock. They carried rifles, and their whole manner was that of soldiers. No doubt there were other men armed in this fashion and in this fashion mounting guard over the house of the rich man. Was it not strange, then, that Alvarez should pay so much money and so much attention in order to secure one more guard on the inside of the house? He resolved to put that question to the master of the house at the first opportunity. Or was it not better to leave well enough alone? What he desired was to stay near this charming girl until—he hardly knew what.
A servant entered with a whispered message for Alvarez. He rose at once and left the room after an apology to Señorita Mantiez, and a wave to Kobbe. Kobbe half expected that she would turn to him and begin a conversation of some sort. And in fact, as her fingers trailed carelessly through some meaningless chords, he thought that she was about to end and was merely hunting for an opening word to begin to talk. He decided to help her.
"May I take that chair at your right?" asked Kobbe.
"Stay where you are!" she said.
He could hardly believe his ears. "I didn't quite hear you," said Kobbe.
"Stay where you are," she said, and began to play something which he did not recognize, just loud enough, as it seemed to him, to enable her to speak to him without fearing that the sound of her voice would carry any farther than his ear. And the heart of Kobbe began to race.
"Do you mean...?"
"That he is still watching, of course."
Kobbe flushed and set his teeth.
"You must smoke and look happy," she said.
Automatically he produced a cigarette. "Because of what? Of Señor Alvarez?"
"Yes. He is very suspicious, and he can almost read minds, Señor Kobbe, when he is excited."
"That's not very amiable."
"Not at all."
"Why does he do it?"
"He is jealous."
"Jealous?" Kobbe stared at her.
"That is it. He is afraid of other men... because he is older than I, you see?"
He would have paid a year of life for the sake of seeing her face as she talked. "Do you mean to say... I cannot understand you, señorita."
"We are betrothed, señor. I am surprised that he did not tell you."
"Not a word! But... but you will be a very great lady as the wife of Señor Alvarez. I wish you great happiness, also."
"I shall be happy enough, thank you. But people do not marry for romance in these times, of course."
"They do not?"
"No. Girls must realize that life is a hard proposition."
"And so they are raised to look for contentment in marriage... not great happiness. Señor Alvarez has explained it all to me many times."
Kobbe could not speak. He puffed at the cigarette until he had regained his composure. He managed to say at last: "It is all a new theory to me."
"Oh, it is not a theory. It is a fact."
"He is very sure."
"He knows the facts."
"What are they, please?"
"When people are driven along by a great, wild love, they are wildly happy for a month, and then they begin to be discontented. Then they grow unhappy. Then they regret. Then they begin to hate each other."
"You speak like a professor of love, señorita."
"Oh, no. Only what he has taught me. But the reason is that love is blind, you know."
"I have read that in a book, I think."
"It simply means that when people are in love, they are not seeing one another, for they are merely seeing their love. But when the love grows just a little cold, then they begin to see the truth. And it is always such a great ways below the thing they saw in their blindness that they can hardly stand the shock of the truth."
"Do none stand it successfully?"
"Almost none," she said.
"Except one's own parents," he said.
"My mother died when I was only a baby," she said. "And yours?"
"They worshipped each other."
"And did they begin with true love?"
"Like music," he said. "He was coming down from a mine where he had been working. His hands were sore; his legs were tired; his pockets were empty. His winter's work had been for nothing, and he had his jaw set for fighting. Then he saw my mother galloping her horse across the trail, with a white feather in her hat, and the wind rippling in her hair. He saw her, and he loved her. They were married in a week. And they loved each other to the day of their deaths."
"Is it true?" she said. And her fingers ceased upon the piano.
Then she began to play very softly on the piano, drawling the phrases of the music, and all of them were filled with a speaking sadness.
"I wish," she said at last, "that you had not told me that."
"Because I think that I should have been happier without knowing."
And Kobbe knew that his words had taken hold upon her and were working deep and deeper into her mind.
SHE was thrumming at the piano again, but the music was so soft that he knew it could not interrupt her thoughts.
"Oh, of course," she said at last, "I understand that there are these romances. But most of them are in books. However, Señor Alvarez and I have decided that the other way is the safer way."
"You and Señor Alvarez?" he echoed as the picture grew bright in his mind.
"I'm surprised that he hasn't told you, since he knows that you're to be with us for such a long time."
Still she played the piano. Still her head was turned from him.
He came to his feet, and at the noise she turned toward him. It was only for a glance, but he could tell in that instant that at the least she was not happy. And he forgot that he was showing her the misery of his own face. This child, with all the beauty of her life before her, to be wedded to a man past the middle of his life, gray, already half-prepared for the grave.
He murmured something as an excuse and stumbled out of the room, out of the house. In the garden he dropped on a bench and turned his face up to the stars and the cool of the wind. But when he was motionless, his torment grew too much for him to bear. He started up and began to pace back and forth, for when he was in motion he could struggle better toward a solution of his problem.
She was to marry Alvarez! For that purpose doubtless he had raised her, reveling in the prospect of her beauty one day becoming his. She had passed from his protégée to his fiancée, and in the end she was to be his wife. That certainly must be the story. He saw the tall form of a guard stalking near the wall, and accosted him, for the fellow might be able to tell him something worth knowing.
He had expected a Spanish accent, for in New Mexico Spanish is far more familiar than English, and particularly on the estate of a Spanish-American.
"Maybe you're Kobbe?" he said.
"That's my name."
"Well," said the guard, "darned if I ain't glad to see you. I guess you're here on the same business that keeps me."
"Perhaps. What's your work?"
"Chasing around, hunting ghosts."
"Ever since that gent shoved a knife at Alvarez, he's been scared green. I'm to keep guard here like a soldier. If I see anybody sneaking around, I'm to holler to 'em once, and then start shooting."
"Maybe the fellow Alvarez shot is one of a gang. Maybe Alvarez is waiting for the next one of the gang to show up?"
"Did he tell you that?" murmured the guard. "He's dreaming, partner. I've lived around these parts a mighty long time before Alvarez come, and I've been here all the time Alvarez has been here. He ain't made no enemies. He's a sure enough quiet one. Besides, the folks in this neighborhood ain't the kind that gang together to get a man. They do their hunting one by one."
"Perhaps it's all in the imagination of Señor Alvarez."
"It sure is. By the way, I was over to see the shooting today. That was neat work you done. When I see you knock them cans over, I says to myself: 'Alvarez will want Kobbe to help on this job.' And by Jiminy, here you are!"
He laughed softly, rocking back and forth. "You'll get easy work and fat pay," he said. "I guess me and Harry, yonder, and the others do the outside work, and you work on the inside. All I got to say is that if anybody tries to do anything to Alvarez, he's going to get filled with lead."
"What does Miss Mantiez think?" asked Kobbe.
"She don't do no thinking except what Alvarez tells her to do," said the cowpuncher sourly.
"How can that be?"
"Why, since her dad died..."
"Who was he?"
"I see you're a sure enough stranger around here."
"Well, Mantiez used to own this here ranch. He was a fine old gent. He was always giving a show of some kind or other. Gave so many that everybody called this Rodeo Ranch. Gave so many that he got plumb in debt. He was a sort of 'everybody's friend.' Couldn't say no to a stranger, even. If a miner was broke, he'd come in to Señor Mantiez. If a cowpuncher was down on his luck, he could get a job or a stake or leave to lie around and get chuck with the other boys until he was fed up fat or landed a job somewheres. That was the sort that Mantiez was.
"Of course he'd run over his head in debt. Everybody owed him and he owed the bank. Finally along comes Alvarez, buys in on the bank, and decides that he wants the ranch. He closes in on the ranch; Mantiez has to lay down, and inside of a month the ranch belonged to Alvarez and Mantiez had died of something or other... I dunno what. Everybody said it was a busted heart that really killed him. He had to trust everybody, of course. The last person he trusted was Alvarez. He turned over his girl to him. And dog-gone me if he didn't do a good job of it!"
"Made Alvarez guardian of the girl?"
"Right. And Alvarez has been working ever since for her. Gave her a damned fine education. Had all kinds of teachers here for her and—"
"But never sent her away to school."
"Sure, he didn't. He kept her here and spent five times as much as it would cost if she'd gone to a school, everybody says. And now, what do you think?"
"As if he hadn't done enough for her already, Alvarez is going to up and marry her!" He shook his head in wonder at such greatness of heart.
"He's a lucky man," said Kobbe.
"Lucky? Giving her this here whole ranch? Why, he ain't got any other heir. It'll all go to that girl!"
"Do you think that had any weight with her?"
"She's human, I guess," said the other. "But the main thing was that she don't know how to think anything different from what Alvarez tells her. However, everybody agrees that it's pretty fine of Alvarez to turn this here ranch back to the Mantiez family. But about that El Capitán horse..."
Kobbe hardly heard the question. He returned a vague answer and strolled off through the garden. He passed down the side of the house and to the rear, out of sight of the guard, and it was when he approached the broad shining face of a pool into which the fountain had ceased playing that the shot was fired. The wasp hum darted past his forehead, but he was already in mid-air, leaping back into the shrubbery near the pool.
Another bullet followed him and clipped a slender branch above his head and sent it rustling down. Then Kobbe went into action. He had seemed formidable enough in the broad light of the day at the rodeo. But here under the starlight he was turned into a great lurking cat. Behind him he could hear the distant shout of the guard. But he did not wait for assistance. He raced through the shrubbery and darted straight at the wall of the garden.
From behind it he saw the head and shoulders of a man and a gun raised. At the flash of metal he fired, heard a muffled cry, and the figure disappeared. In another instant he was on top of the wall. He saw just beneath him—for a declivity of the ground beyond the wall made it considerably lower than the garden side—a horse with an empty saddle and, on the ground beside the horse, a motionless form.
He dropped down, kicked the revolver away from the hand of the fallen man, and jerked the limp figure to its knees. Then he found that he was looking into the face of Lopez! He swore softly beneath his breath, and Lopez groaned a response.
Kobbe released his grip and the other staggered to his feet. For a second he groped idly around him as though to make sure of his surroundings or to reach his fallen weapon. Then his senses seemed to return. He drew himself up and glared at Kobbe.
"In the name of heaven, Lopez," said Kobbe, "have you descended to this? Are you hunting me as if I were a rat?"
Lopez supported his right arm with his left. It was plain that the bullet had struck the gun, cast it into the face of Lopez with stunning force, and had then ripped up the arm of Lopez.
"I hunted you like a rat," said Lopez, "because whatever you may be to other men, to us you are only a traitor."
"Get on your horse," answered Kobbe. "And thank heaven that your traitor does not treat you according to your own fashion."
"You let me go at your own peril," answered Lopez. "For if I escape now, I shall come again, John, until we have wiped you out of the way. Alvarez is doomed!"
"I take the peril," answered Kobbe hastily. "Now get into the saddle. They're coming. If they see us together, I'll be compelled to take you in spite of myself!"
Lopez hesitated. But whatever was in his mind remained unspoken. He turned, caught the horn of the saddle with his unwounded hand, and dragged himself up. A touch of his spurs sent him flying over the slope, while a shout from the wall warned Kobbe that the guard had come up at last.
Kobbe jerked up his revolver and opened a fire which was intentionally wild. From the wall the guard was alternately shooting and cursing, but Lopez, leaning low over the neck of a fast horse, was almost instantly screened by a veil of mist.
THERE was a wild pursuit. Kobbe himself was in the van on the chestnut, but in spite of the speed of the stallion, Lopez had gained a lead which could not be overcome, nor could his trail be followed. They came back late in the night and Kobbe found that a message was waiting for him to come at once to Alvarez. He found the rancher walking in deep thought up and down the library. It was not hard to see that he was very excited and very angry.
When Kobbe entered, he was given hardly a glance by his employer, who strode over to the fireplace and, with his hands clasped behind his back, and his back turned to Kobbe, puffed viciously at a cigar and snapped his words over his shoulder.
"What luck this evening, Kobbe?"
"He had too long a start," said Kobbe. "We had no luck at all."
"Your horse was not fast enough?"
"I had to keep back with the others. My speed was their speed."
"What made you stay with them?"
"I might have run into a trap if I had gone on by myself."
"You are paid to take chances, Kobbe."
"I am not paid to throw my life away."
"Good!" But the snarl with which he spoke meant quite the opposite of the word. "When Jenkins found you, what were you doing?"
"Trying to drop him with a chance shot."
"But again you had no luck?"
"Today, when your horse was galloping, you shot tin cans from the top of posts a dozen or twenty feet away."
"This evening, when you were not in the saddle, you miss shots at a man and a horse not five paces off?"
"There is a difference between day and night."
"Very true. But the stars are bright!"
"Besides, there is a difference between shooting at a target, even at a very small one, and at a man, even a big one. If that were not true, in the old days the good shots would always have won the duels."
"Kobbe, who was the man?"
"The man? I have not the slightest idea."
"What had happened before?"
"He shot at me from behind the garden wall, while I was walking down by the pool. I jumped over the fence and..."
"You ran straight at him?"
"Through the brush and then at the wall from the side so that I took him by surprise. He shot at me and I at him. He fell and I jumped over the fence after him."
"I saw him lying flat. I called out to him to surrender. Instead, he caught up his revolver and threw it at me. It was a lucky aim. The gun hit my arm and made me drop my revolver which fell several steps away. I ran to scoop it up, but by that time he was in the saddle and riding away and Jenkins was shooting at him over the wall."
"You let a wounded man get away from you?" Alvarez whirled upon him. "Do you think I would be wise to allow such an unlucky man to work for me?"
The first answer which jumped to the lips of Kobbe was a careless and impertinent reply, but he knew that if he angered Alvarez, it meant that he had seen the girl for the last time. And that would be a disaster. He could not get out of his head the picture of her as she had turned toward him from the piano, curious, sad, searching eyes. He must see her at least once more and determine if she were indeed happy in the thought of her approaching marriage.
"You have been guarded by a number of men for a whole week," he said.
"What has that to do with it?"
"How many men have they even touched with a bullet?" asked Kobbe.
"But perhaps they have no enemies?"
"Do you think it was my enemy who fired at me when I was in the garden?"
"Why not? They could never mistake you for me."
"They may wish to get me out of the way before they attempt to get at you."
Talk had relieved the anger of Alvarez somewhat. Now he broke suddenly into laughter. "Well," he said, "the main thing is that you made the rascal run, and that you nipped him with a bullet... a rather bad wound, too, for I myself searched the place and saw the stains in the grass. But, Kobbe, I'm very curious to know what it was that you talked about with him."
"Talked about? Nothing!"
The rancher began to nod, looking half in anger and half in whimsical amusement at Kobbe.
"Jenkins saw you jump over the fence whole seconds before he came up. But when he arrived, you still had not had time to finish your enemy. Kobbe. Be frank with me!"
"I am frank as I can be."
"You will not tell me who he was?"
"I do not know."
"Suppose what he said to you was: 'Alvarez can only be willing to pay you a few hundreds for his life. But we will pay you as many thousands for his death!' Suppose that he said only those few words to you!"
Kobbe shrugged his shoulders and allowed the other to study him at leisure.
"Come," said Alvarez suddenly. "I have this to show you."
He led his companion to a small desk at the corner of the room. From the upper part of it he jerked out a little drawer which was tightly packed with a whole stack of greenbacks.
"Today," he said, "I was paid an old debt, and I was paid in cash. Count it, Kobbe!"
Kobbe flicked over a few bills to catch the denominations. "There are several thousands here," he said.
"There are as many thousands as there are days remaining in this month," he said. "And if I am still alive at the end of this month, the money is yours, Kobbe. Do you understand?"
"That is too generous."
"My friend, if I could be sure that you will put all your heart and your brain into this work of defending me, I'd double and treble that sum. My life is in your hands. I am a fool if I do not treat my life with caution."
"Why," said Kobbe suddenly, "do you trust so much in me?"
The rancher made a vague gesture. "If you cannot save me," he said, "no one can save me. That much I know!"
He changed the subject suddenly.
"You did not stay long with Miss Mantiez?"
"I did not," admitted Kobbe.
"She thought your leaving was rather strange."
"I am sorry."
"I fear that you are not a great man with the ladies, Kobbe."
"I fear I am not," said Kobbe. "If you have depended upon me to entertain Miss Mantiez, I shall disappoint you again."
And it was plain that the rancher was delighted.
"If we must get along without your talk," he said, "we must do as best we may do. And if..."
Here there was the long and almost human sighing of a draft across the room, and Alvarez whirled as though his name had been called. He saw only a yawning door and the black hall beyond it, yet the sight seemed to steal all his manhood away. He sank into a chair, gasping: "Kobbe... for heaven's sake... see... what it is! Help!"
Kobbe ran to the door and looked down the hall. There was nothing there. He closed the door and turned back with that report.
"It was only the work of the wind," he said.
"Do you think so?" sneeringly replied Alvarez, some of his courage returning. "Do you think it is only the wind? I tell you they have surrounded my house and they are in my house. Perhaps you are one of them. Perhaps they have poisoned the mind of Miriam against me. Perhaps her hand will tomorrow pour a few drops in the wine which will..."
He broke off with a shudder. And then he added solemnly: "Never think that I am a foolish neurasthenic. I tell you, Kobbe, that there are men in this world who would give their own lives for the sake of taking mine. They have hunted me for years. They have found me at last. The first of them I have killed with my own hand. But the second... heaven knows what will happen when the second sneaks inside my house, unless a brave man like you protects me. Good night. And remember, that when I call from my room after dark... if it is only so much as a whisper... if it is only a sound which you imagine... if it sounds only like the beating of the feet or the hands of a man who is being strangled so that he cannot cry out before his death... or if in the middle of the night a mere suspicion stirs in you... then, for heaven's sake jump from your bed, seize your guns, and dash into my room. Do you hear me, Kobbe?"
And he clutched the arm of his companion with shaking hands. Kobbe turned his head a little away from that yellowed face of fear.
"I shall do my best," he said.
THERE was no sleep for Kobbe that night. He undressed, went to bed, and made desperate efforts to concentrate on lines of passing sheep, and on columns of figures, but all sleep-inducing devices were of no avail. Finally he dressed again, replaced his guns on his person, and went into the hall. He paced up and down for some time when the door of the room of Alvarez was snatched open and Alvarez himself looked wildly out upon him with a revolver clutched in his hand.
"Praise heaven it is you, Kobbe," Alvarez said. "I listened to that cursed pacing up and down the hall... just a whisper and a creak, now and then... until it seemed to me that I could count my murderers gathering. I tried to push open the door into your room. I had forgotten that it can only be opened from your side. Finally I determined to rush out and fight for my life. And then I see it is only you... walking here deliberately back and forth... keeping on the watch to save me... oh, Kobbe, God bless you for it!"
And Kobbe saw tears glinting on his cheeks. He felt a touch of shame. Certainly it had not been on account of Alvarez that he had conducted that midnight promenade.
"Go down to the main hall," said Alvarez. "If you will stay up this night for my sake, go down to the main hall and watch there. I have dreamed of them for a week slipping in from the rear garden and coming through the hall and up the steps, softly and silently... go quickly, Kobbe! That is the place to watch tonight. Let the hall be. They will beat down Jenkins and the other guards. They will come in a silent wave through the garden and enter the house."
Of course, to Kobbe, it seemed madness. But he could do nothing but obey. He saw the rancher turn, a bowed, slow-moving figure, into his room; then Kobbe went to the great hall.
The approach to it was down a short range of steps, for though the building was of one story, it was constructed upon several levels, according to the original disposition of the ground, and the wing of the bedchambers was at a considerable elevation above the great hall and the living rooms. The hall itself extended through the entire breadth of the house, with great French doors opening on the garden behind the house. Into it he passed, and finding a corner chair he looked over the apartment.
With its lofty ceiling and spacious floor it was worthy in dimensions of some old baronial hall. At parts of it he could only guess, for there was not a light burning. But the moon had lately risen and was pouring its slant light through the tall eastern windows, and that light was dimly caught up by the big mirrors which were built into the walls on all sides, so that the hall was half light and half shadow and even the light parts were little more than starlight darkness.
His mind was still far from his task as guard and deep in the problem of Alvarez and his strange prepossessions when he heard a light whispering sound on the steps which led down from the upper level and into the big room. He had barely time to shrink out of his chair and kneel behind it when a glimmering figure in white stole into view, paused, and then went slowly on, in ghostly silence so far as any footfall was concerned, but with the same light whispering of silk against silk.
It crossed the hall and was swallowed in the blackness of an opposite doorway. Kobbe was instantly after her. When he reached the doorway, the figure was gone, but when he hurried on to the next chamber he saw it again, a pale form disappearing into the music room. And from the doorway, he listened to faint music beginning on the piano, touched so very softly that it was like a ghost of sound. And as he listened, it seemed to Kobbe that he recognized some of the same strains which Miriam Mantiez had played that evening while he sat in the room and while they talked cautiously, just above the sound of the hammers on the strings.
He glided into the room. A great block of moonshine, white as marble, lay upon the floor just beyond the piano. And the room beyond the shaft of light was black with dull outlines—all dull saving for that one form at the piano which seemed to shine by a faint radiance of its own. And he knew that it was Miriam.
The ghostly coldness which had possessed his blood was dissipated. He could suddenly breathe freely. His heart leaped. And when he spoke, he knew what answer he would receive. For she had come down here at midnight to play over again the music which she had played for him that evening. Yes, surely his words to her had sunk far deeper than he had dreamed.
He called softly, and she swerved away from the piano and the moonlight cascaded over her and made her an exquisite creature of light. She recognized him in the next instant and managed a shaky laugh when he came forward.
"I thought... a ghost," she said.
"And I thought the same thing," he said.
"But why are you here?"
"And you," he said, "why are you here?"
"I could not sleep," she said.
"Nor I," said Kobbe. "What kept you awake?"
"Oh, I have insomnia now and then."
"I was awake, thinking," said Kobbe.
"Unhappy thoughts, then?"
"Yes, partly. And some very happy ones. I was thinking over all the things that I might have said to you this evening, and which I forgot to say."
"Ah? Then I am glad that I have come down here."
"But I shall never be able to tell them to you."
"They are the sort of things that one tells only to oneself."
"I am a kind critic," said Miriam.
And she said it in such a way that he found himself stealing close and closer to her without his own volition. He came so close that he could see her smile.
"If you tempt me to speak, we may both regret it."
There, certainly, was warning enough. But she did not draw back.
"I know," she said. "All the time I have been in my room I have been trying to guess at the things which were behind the words you were speaking. I have tried to guess. But I cannot guess. That's why I want to hear them now."
"And whatever they are, you'll forgive them?"
"I promise. Because they will be the truth."
"They will be the truth, I think. But do you know the old story of what happened to people on the night of midsummer?"
"Well? They were enchanted with a happy madness."
"That's it, exactly. I am enchanted with a happy madness which makes me say things that I should not say otherwise. But it makes me say that when I met you I became eager for your happiness. You seemed to me so lovely and so good that I made myself happy imagining the sort of life you were to lead after I saw no more of you. And when I learned afterwards that your life was to be spent as the wife of Señor Alvarez..."
"Hush!" she whispered.
"No one can hear me."
"I tell you that the stones of the house have ears for that name."
"I know one thing: that you don't worship him blindly, as other people think you do. That he is no oracle to you, as others think."
"How do you know that?"
"I have myself heard you say that he eavesdrops upon you. And in the whole world there's nothing more cowardly and small-souled than that."
"Please... please! If you say such things..."
"The floor will gape under us and swallow us both. Is that it?"
"I only warn you that we must not think of such things. How I could have said what I did to you I don't know. But when he left us alone this evening, it seemed to me a trap. Because he knows what is going on in my mind every instant!"
"Nonsense! That's just hysteria."
"And yet if you knew all the things I could tell you... but when you were in the room and when I was playing for you, I was afraid of what would happen if he read my thoughts."
"Because all at once it came over me... choked me... a wave of knowledge that I had been hideously lonely all my life and that I should be lonely all my days to come. And that I had missed and would always miss something that you have and that all sunlit people have!"
"What can you mean by that?"
"I don't know, except that the life I have led here seems made up of shadows and no substance. Can you understand? I feel as if every day was like the day that went before, and that other days would follow exactly like it. I feel as if I were not real, but just a mirror reflecting a pale image of something that I might be."
"And it was this evening you felt it?"
"Then," he said, "it is magic, but white magic, you know. For I felt the same thing. As if to take you out of this house would be to lead you out of a darkness into the sun."
"Ah, that is it!"
"But instead you are to stay here as the wife of an old man."
"But why under heaven do you do it? This is a free country!"
"Nothing that comes near him remains free very long. Everything, sooner or later, becomes afraid of him."
"Do you mean to say...?"
"Oh, yes! Don't you see that what other people think is worship of him... is simply terror that freezes my mind and soul? I dread him more than I dread death!"
THE shock of it numbed Kobbe's very brain. She slipped closer to him, her eyes going wildly over his shoulder on either side, as if searching out an invisible danger which must be gliding upon them. Now she was clinging to him, and her great eyes were fixed upon his.
"Do you know that I have not had the courage to tell you that there is danger threatening you here in this house? Do you know that?"
"Threatening me here? Yes, I think many people know that. From the outside there are..."
"Not the outside... not the outside. That's not it! I lay awake on my bed trying to puzzle it out. That was after he told me this evening. For he tells me everything, you know. He feels that I am such a part of him that he can tell me everything. He cannot see that I hate and loathe him and all his thoughts! Oh, with all of his brains and his devilishness he cannot see that I know him and hate what I know! But tonight... ah, what is that?"
She swayed to one side, but he caught her and supported her, and at the same time swinging her around, he surveyed the doorway with the muzzle of his revolver. It was only an instant, but in that instant she depended upon him for protection, and in that instant joy almost burst his heart. He could have faced lions with his bared hands.
"Praise heaven! But we must not stay here. If he is not here, he is coming."
"We cannot stir until you've told me what the danger is that threatens me."
"Haven't you guessed?"
"It is he... it is Alvarez!"
"When you came, he told me about it. You are one of his enemies."
"Did he know that? I knew that he might have guessed it because his spies had told him my real name."
"Not his spies. He could recognize you by your face. You are much like your father, he says, and your father was a man who once injured Alvarez."
"Injured him? The lying hypocrite!"
"He is worse than that. Only I know what he truly is! But about you... he told you that he knew your name. But it was only so that by telling you part of the truth he could keep you from guessing that he understood everything."
"And what is that 'everything?'"
"If he knew that I were telling you, he would have me burned inch by inch!"
"He shall never touch you with the weight of a finger!"
"Then this is it! He says that you are one of a whole gang. The first man to attack him was a member. And others were to follow, he told me. He was in constant peril of his life. So he determined to get an expert fighter's protection, and he started the rodeo. He said that he knew someone of his enemies would appear at that rodeo in the hope that they could get into the house and there murder him. He expected that some enemy whose face was unknown to him..."
"And that was I?"
"That was you. When he brought you home, he told me that he had the prize he wanted. He had one of the enemy's camp, and he would buy you. And having bought you, he would have a protector who knew the faces and all the plans of all his enemies. No one else could be so valuable. Everything was prepared for your coming as if it were a stage."
"He was so sure I would answer his invitation?"
"Yes. He was sure of that. And once you came here he depended on his money to buy you. But even his money would not do entirely. He said that money was strong, but sometimes romance was stronger, and so he planned it that I should walk in the garden outside the window while he was talking with you. He even told me what dress I should wear so as to make the best possible picture."
"He was right," murmured Kobbe. "It was you who kept me here. But what a dog he is to make you a bait!"
"I was more ashamed than by anything else he has ever made me do. And when I looked through the window and saw your face and
your honest eyes looking out at me... I could not stand it. I turned and ran."
"God bless you!"
"But now you understand only part. When he has finished using you, he is going to destroy you. He has told me that. And he has no shame or remorse about it. He says that you started to threaten his life and therefore it is only logical and just that he should threaten your life. When you are no longer of advantage to him, he'll wipe you out of his way. He says it is the rule of war. And if he knew now what I have told you, he'd destroy us both, and..."
Again fear choked her. He took both her hands.
"Listen to me. He'll do neither of us harm. We're leaving this house. And we leave together. God help him if he tries to stop us."
"But he has armed men..."
"I know his armed men. If I have to shoot my way through them, I'll do it. But it won't come to that. Tell me one thing first: why is he so afraid if he knows so much about what is going on among his enemies?"
"Because though he trusts that you will be enough to save him, you expect to become rich from the work, and because you know the plans of your other friends. Because he is as cowardly as he is cruel."
"I believe in the cowardice. I've seen it. Yet tell me, if you fear and hate him so, why have you stayed here?"
"Because I didn't know where to go if I left this place. And I had no one I could trust to go with me."
"And that was all?"
"A hundred times it has been all that kept me from leaving. A hundred times I have lain awake at night and wondered how God could let me keep living in such unhappiness!"
"Does it mean that you will leave this house with me... at once... tonight?"
"The moment I can get a cloak."
"Do not wait even for that!"
"And you have thought that if you leave you will become poor at a step?"
"I have thought of that. That is less than nothing."
"Before you go to your room, shall I tell you the true story of how I happened to come hunting Alvarez?"
"I know that there was a good reason."
"It was like this: ten years ago my father was in South America. He was rich in coffee plantations, and he had a wide circle of friends who were also great growers. And they, again, were affiliated with other people, and the whole made a large and powerful party in politics. They grew discontented with the harsh treatment which they received from the party which was in power. Finally they were so badly treated that there were imprisonments. And then they decided on a rebellion. In the party which had decided to rebel was my father, and of the others the most prominent was a man named Quinnado. It was Quinnado who first had become discontented with the government. It was Quinnado who first schemed to rebel. It was Quinnado who was the backbone of the whole affair.
"But at the last moment Quinnado disappeared from the country, and at the same moment the chief heads of the proposed rebellion were arrested, given sham trials, and immediately executed. My father was one of those who paid the penalty.
"Of course the reasoning of the other leaders was perfectly simple. It was known that Quinnado had sold his entire estates at a handsome figure, and he had vowed that he would use the entire sum to forward the revolution. This seemed so extremely generous that the other members of the revolutionary party immediately made him treasurer of the scheme and turned into his hands immense sums of money which they had raised for the war which was to come. The size of the sum was too much for Quinnado. He must have sold the secrets of the party to the government for a bonus of hard cash plus liberty to leave the country and go abroad where he could settle down in a new place with a new name, since it was certain that he could never live in his native land where so many hundreds of orphans and infuriated relatives would be willing to sell their own lives if they might take his in exchange.
"That was the general theory. But there were some who felt that Quinnado had been done away with and that his body had been lost as well as the names of those who murdered him. Nevertheless, among those of the revolutionists who survived there were some who escaped the proscription and who organized themselves for the purpose of hunting down Quinnado and pinning the result of his crimes upon him, if he were actually living.
"Finally, after searching for ten years, they found him here in the American West. This was the last place they looked for him because he had always hated America and things American. But they located him here and they organized to get him out of the way. It was about the same time that they found me and brought me into the work. I hardly liked an assassination scheme and told them so, but they swore that they would use me in some such way that I should not at least have to fire any bullet at a man whose back was turned to me.
"I joined in on that presumption. I entered the rodeo and when Quinnado, or Alvarez as he calls himself, sent for me, I came. You know what followed. He called me by my real name, which is John Kobbe Turner. He made me the proposition you know of, and he bought me by letting me see your face.
"There is my whole story. And there is only one thing that I want to write at the end of it: which is that I have succeeded in taking you away to freedom. And yet I've been half-baffled, Miriam, by Quinnado, when I see what he has done. And when I saw how he has made himself respected and liked in this community, I began to doubt what my other friends had told me of him. I began to think that he must be an honest man, or if he was crooked before, he must have reformed!"
"But you could not expect to know him as I know him. He has never done anything except what he has figured out to be of benefit to himself. He has raised me for years, but it was because from the very first he had decided that some day he would marry me. And to effect that, he has kept me away from all young people, all..." Her voice broke with her anger. "Then we must go quickly, if we go at all."
He nodded. "I'll take you to the door of your room and wait for you there."
So they hurried out of the room and across the great hall where the weird moonlight had grown brighter, and up the steps and down the corridor to the door of her room. There they paused.
"Do you know," she whispered, "just now when I'm about to leave this house forever, I feel more deeply in his power than ever before? And just now I feel that he knows everything in my mind as clearly as if it were written out for him in black and white."
"Let him know what he pleases about you once we're outside this house."
"But how can we get through his guards?"
"They're posted to keep people out, not to keep them in."
She hesitated with her hand on the door. Then, with a lift of her head so that he almost saw her smiling up to him through the darkness, she opened the door quickly and stepped inside.
The door closed. He heard the faint falling of her steps as she crossed the room, and then—a sharp click and he knew that the door had been locked on the inside, and yet he had distinctly heard her walk away from it! Some other person was in that room.
THE first thought of Kobbe was that Alvarez had sent Jenkins or some other guard to the room of the girl to take charge of her and see that she did not escape from the house. This indicated that he had knowledge of the interview which had just passed between Kobbe and the girl. Miriam had been so confident that the rancher could not fail to read what was happening in her mind that she had almost persuaded Kobbe as well.
Yet he knew on second thought that there was no man he had seen on the place who would stand guard over the girl against her wish. Certainly Jenkins was not of that ilk.
There was a sound as of someone stumbling and then recovering himself as softly as possible. It came from the short flight of steps leading into the upper hall. Something else stirred at the opposite end of the hall, and the full meaning came to him instantly. They were blocking each end of the hall and were closing in on him. Alvarez had learned the purport of his talk with the girl and was more eager to destroy than to use him for his own protection against his old enemies.
He looked eagerly and vainly around him for an escape, but the trap was nearly shut. There was only one possibility, and that was through the door into the room of the girl.
The stealthy sounds drew closer on either hand. When they came within arm's reach, he would die. He looked anxiously around him. Like all men in desperation, he began to feel about with his hands, as though the eyes were not enough. And, so doing, his fingertips touched the molding beside the door. The post was so massive that it thrust out a couple of inches from the main line of the wall. If it were so thick at the side, above the door lintel might be still deeper. He reached up and tested it. To his amazement he found that there was a ledge a full six inches deep.
After that he was in temporary safety for an instant, at the least. He caught hold on the ledge, swung himself sidewise and up like a pendulum, and managed to plant one foot on the ledge. Then he struggled up above the ledge. He would have fallen back, of course, from such a meager foothold, but he found that there were other projections to which he could cling, and he was able to turn around and finally to squat upon his heels and stare down into the darkness.
The stealthy sounds were gradually approaching down the hall on either side. But in the meantime, what was happening in the room of the girl? There was not a sound, not a whisper. And yet the walls were not at all sound-proof. He had even been able to hear, from the hall, the light tapping of her feet as she had crossed the floor. And that was not all. He had heard the turning of the key within the lock. He knew that another person beside the girl was there, and yet not a whisper to tell him of what was happening came to his ears. It was a maddening suspense.
What happened in the room of Miriam had been sufficiently horrible. She had crossed the room in the thick darkness and already had her hand upon the switch which would flood the room with electric light when she heard the click of the turning lock in the hall door. Yet it gave her only a momentary start. She attributed it, at once, to the touching of the outer knob of the door by Kobbe, who must be waiting there impatiently for her return. And when she returned to him there would be an end to the long shadow of unhappiness in which she had lived. So she pulled the switch, and the lights poured through the room.
When she turned, she saw Alvarez with his back to the door and a smile on his pale face! It was the swift ending of her dream of success. She braced her hand against the table behind her and faced him with her teeth set.
He darkened, at that, and the smile faded from his face. It was the first time she had let him even have a hint of her true emotions concerning him. He recovered almost at once, however, and gestured toward the door to a little study which was a part of her suite. There was nothing to do but obey him. He could make her go by force, if he chose. And the silence of his movements, his use of gestures in the place of words, showed that he knew Kobbe was waiting for her outside the hall door. Waiting for her, at least, unless he had been alarmed by the noise of that turning lock. But in that case, what could he do?
She went into the study. Alvarez, still in silence, followed her and locked that door as well behind them.
"Now," he said, and his voice was as oily smooth as ever, "we can talk here quietly together. There are two doors and two walls between us and any disturbance."
"It is our last talk," she said, "and it will have to be a brief one."
He smiled, showing two perfectly even lines of white teeth, and for the first time she began to guess at what might happen, not to herself, but to Kobbe, who waited outside in the hall.
"I have been listening to you and my friend, Kobbe," he said.
"Eavesdropping?" Miriam asked scornfully.
"An old habit of mine and a very useful one. A proud man does not do it. But I am not proud. If I had been proud, I should have died long ago."
"And now?" she asked.
"I am deciding this moment what to do with him."
"With Señor Kobbe?"
"Use his right name!" snapped out Alvarez. "You know it as well as I do."
"Very good, Señor Quinnado."
He shrank as though she had struck him. And she instantly regretted that she had gone so far.
"I'm sorry," she said. "But... I want to know what you intend doing about him."
"About Kobbe... or Turner, to give him his right name? I have this moment made up my mind. He is to be removed, Miriam. He is to make an unfortunate attempt to escape. And he is to be unfortunately shot down by my overzealous guards. A regrettable affair, eh?"
Her lips stirred without making a sound.
"You are white, Miriam," he said. "This evidently cuts rather deep."
"If you do that..."
"I am a devil, eh?"
"There is no word for you if you do that!"
He had been walking back and forth, but now he whirled around on her.
"Miriam, you love him!"
"Love him? I have never seen him before today."
"I say that you love him!"
"He is the finest man I have ever seen. He is the most honest and the most fearless. If I do not love him, at least I honor him!"
"And the word that you have given me that we shall be married?"
"You have dragged that promise out of me. Besides, I promised to marry Señor Alvarez and not Señor Quinnado."
"That name again? And yet suppose, Miriam, that we make a bargain and that I marry you, after all?"
"I had rather die."
"Because you care so much for this Turner? This Kobbe?"
"Yes, yes! Because I care so much for him!"
"But he is mine, now."
"He will not be taken. There is something about him which cannot be beaten."
Miriam's eyes shone.
"You will see. He is mine, Miriam. I'll offer you his life for the sake of your hand."
"You will marry me, knowing that I detest you?"
"Possession is the main thing. Everything else is an incident. You will understand better later on."
"What a hypocrite and liar you have been for these ten years!"
"I have acted a part with the most consummate difficulty, and I have acted it better than it ever could have been acted upon the stage. That is the point of distinction. I am waiting for your answer, Miriam!"
They were interrupted by a sound of scuffling and then voices loud enough to drift through the two walls to their ears from the inner hall of the house.
"Do you hear?" asked Alvarez, alias Quinnado. "They have taken him now, I believe!"
He threw open the door. At once the noises were more audible. He ran across her bedroom and opened the door into the outer hall. Instantly a group of men struggled in, bringing Kobbe in their center. And there was a faint cry of grief and of terror from Miriam. Kobbe himself was furious rather than frightened. He was busy marking the faces of each of his captors. If he lived out the peril and met them again in freedom, it would go hard with all of them. That much was sure, and the grim expressions of his captors showed that they realized what they had done.
He could hardly hope for mercy.
"We've got him, Alvarez," said Jenkins. "And now that we have him, we're going to get rid of him if you'll say the word. It can show up that we found him prowling around the house. They can never lay a hand on us for getting rid of him in that way. But if he's left alive he's going to make these parts too hot to hold him and us too. Understand?"
"Listen," pleaded Miriam at the shoulder of Alvarez. "Have him freed and I swear that I shall never see him again."
"And become the loving wife of Alvarez?"
She shuddered, but nodded.
"Very well, then, but it will require tact and patience. Let me talk with them first."
He turned toward the others and was about to speak when a window was thrown violently up from the side of the garden and a loud voice shouted into the room: "Quinnado!"
Alvarez whirled with a cry of terror so sharp that it was like the scream of a man in torture. The others saw only a pale blur and the glint of a gun in the darkness beyond the window. But what Alvarez saw made him scream: "Ornate!"
Then the gun spoke, and Quinnado pitched heavily upon his face.
That was the touch that freed the arms of Kobbe. He was instantly left to himself. Half of the men who had recently been busied in the care of him lunged for the garden window through which the avenger had fired. The other half stormed through the door and into the hall of the house. It left the two of them alone, and the instant they were free they fell into one another's arms.
But there was only an instant of that close embrace. The house was still filled with Alvarez's men, and what might happen when they returned from what would be doubtless a futile chase of the slayer could not be guessed.
Kobbe led Miriam swiftly from her room. They hurried down the hall, out through the flowers in the patio, and through the gate and on to the hilltop beyond. There was no time and no courage for them to go to the stables for a horse. They had, above all, to make sure of their safety. El Capitán was left behind them, and they ran stumbling on through the night.
They ran blindly, as well, and yet it seemed to both of them that they had found the very road of happiness.