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Daughter of the Sun By Jackson Gregory Characters: 15263

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02



A strip of white beach three hundred feet long, a score of paces across at its widest, with black barren cliffs guarding it and the faint pink dawn slowly growing a deeper rose over it, such was the port of adventure into which nosed the row boat bringing Jim Kendric and Twisty Barlow treasure seeking. In the stern crouched Nigger Ben, come ashore in order to row the boat back to the New Moon, his eyes bulging with wonderment that men should come all the way from San Diego to disembark upon so solitary a spot. The dingey shoved its nose into the sand, Kendric and Barlow carrying their small packs and rifles sprang out, Nigger Ben shook his head and pushed off again.

"Up the cliffs the easiest way," cried Barlow, his eyes shining with excitement. "Up there I'll get my bearin's and we'll steer a straight-string line for what's ahead, Headlong, old mate! Step lively is the word now while it's cool. And by noon, if we're in luck--"

He left the rest to any man's imagination and hastened across the sand and to the rock wall. But more forbidding than ever rose the cliffs against the path of men who did not know their every crevice, and it was full day and the sun was up before they came panting to the top. Down went packs, with two heaving-chested, bright-eyed men atop of them, while Barlow, compass in hand, got his bearings.

The devil's own he had named this country from afar; the devil's own it extended itself, naked and dry and desolate before their questing eyes, a weary land, sun-smitten, broken, looking deserted of God and man. As far as they could see there were no trees, little growth of any kind, no birds, no grazing beasts. Just swell after swell of arid lands, here and there cut by ancient gorges, tumbled over by heaps of black rocks, swept clean of dust on the high places by racing winds, piled high with sand and small stones in the depressions. Where growing things thrust up their heads, they were the harsh, fanged and envenomed growth of desert places. The place had an air of unholiness in the light of the new day. A thorn, as Barlow turned carelessly, tore the skin on the back of his hand painfully. The parent stem had an evil look and he cursed it as though it had been a conscious malign agent, and struck at it with his clubbed rifle. From the place where the branch was wrenched away exuded a slow red sticky ooze like coagulating blood.

"There's our course," announced Barlow, pointing, "with half a dozen hours of damned unpleasant walking, according to poor old Juarez. See those three peaks, standing up together? We bear a little off to the south for a spell and then straight toward 'em. And never a spring until we get there! Look out you don't poke a hole in your canteen."

"Ready," said Jim. "Let's go."

They went on. Now that a new phase had come into their quest, with the days of distant speculation giving place to action on the ground, a certain difference of character was manifest in the two men. A growing taciturnity, accompanied by deep frowning thoughtfulness, locked Barlow's lips, while Kendric, to whom any such experience was always primarily a lark, expanded and mounted steadily to fresh stages of lightheartedness. It mattered less to him than to his companion what might lie at the end of their journey; the journey itself was with Jim Kendric the golden thing. He felt alive, jubilant, keenly in sympathy with the lure and zest of the expedition. He felt like singing, would no doubt have sung out in some wild border ballad or bit of deep sea melody with a piratical swing to it, had he not been half the time fairly breathless from the pace they maintained over the broken country.

In a couple of hours they left behind them the worst of the gorges and ca?ons, flinty peaks and ridges, and dropped down into a long crooked valley floored with dry sand ankle deep and grown over with a gray shrub plainly akin to California sage brush. Here was some scant evidence of animal life, a dusty jack rabbit, a circling buzzard, a thin spotted snake, a wild pony with up-flung head staring at them from the further ridge, gone whisking away as they drew on. And they came to trees whose shade was grateful, oaks and, later, a few dusty straggling pi?ons. Wisps of dry grass, an occasional patch of flowering weeds or taller plants, a flock of bewildered-looking birds that had the appearance of having strayed hitherward by mistake. No water, no sign of water; no man-owned herds, no sign of man. The open valley under the high, hot sun was a drearier place than the mountain slopes.

Then came the up-hill climb as they passed out of the western edge of the sandy flats, a steep spur of the Cordillera, a region silent and saturnine and unthinkably hot. Three times, though they guarded against profligacy with their water, they unstoppered their canteens and rested in the shade on the way up. At last they came to the crest of the barrier of the blistering hills, having been on foot for a full five hours. And now, for the first time, looking forward, down the steep slopes and across the miles, they saw the Valley of Las Flores, the place of flowers. At first it was hard for them to believe that their eyes, which the desert lands befool so often and so readily, had not tricked them. It was as though in a twinkling the world had changed about them.

The long wide valley below was one sweep of green: fresh, colorful, cool green. Across it wandered many cows and horses and donkeys, browsing where the herbiage was lushest, dozing in the shade of the wide-spread oaks, standing indolent in the golden sunshine. A bright stream of water cut the emerald sward in two, coming from the bordering mountains at one end, gone flashing into the mountain-guarded pass at the other. From a distance Kendric heard a bird singing away like mad and saw the sweep and flutter of a butterfly's wing.

"The earthly paradise!" he cried admiringly.

But already Barlow's fixed eyes were upon the mountainous country across the valley.

"Come on," he said, slipping his pack-straps over his shoulders and swinging up his rifle. "It would be three to five miles, easy going, and we're there! There are our three peaks, straight across."

Only when they were fairly down on the floor of the valley did they see the ranch houses. There were several, a big, rambling adobe with white-washed walls, barns and smaller outbuildings, all making a sizeable group. They stood in an oak grove at the opposite side of the valley, close to the common bases of Barlow's peaks. The two men stopped and looked, reflecting.

"Neighbors," said Kendric. "They'll be wanting to know what we're about, pottering around on the rim of their holding."

"It's anybody's land over there," growled Barlow. "They'd best keep out of it."

They pushed on across the fields, noting casually how they were all leveled and ditched for irrigation, and came at last to the creek where they rested under an oak and drank deeply and smoked. As they rose to go on they saw four horsemen bearing down upon them from the direction of the ranch houses.

"Vacqueros," said Barlow. "They'll be wantin' to know if we're lost."

"They look more like brigands than cow men," grunted Kendric. "Every man jack of them wears a rifle. And they're in a rush, Twisty, old mate. What will you bet they don't herd us back where we came from?"

"Let 'em try it on," Barlow shot back at him, his eyes narrowing on the oncoming riders. "I'm goin' to roll up in my blanket under those three peaks tonight if the whole

Mexican army shows up."

The two Americans stopped and stood ready to ease their shoulders out of their packs and start pumping lead if the newcomers turned out to be half the desperadoes they appeared. "The way to argue with these sort of gents," said Barlow contemptuously, "is shoot their eyes out first and talk next." But as the foremost of the little cavalcade drew up in front of them, with his three followers curbing their horses a few paces in his rear, the fellow's greeting was amazingly hospitable.

"Buenas dias, amigos," he called to them. But, though he hailed them in the name of friendship, his eyes were sullen and gave the lie to his speech. "You would be fatigued with walking across the cursed desert; you would be parched with thirst. Yonder," and he pointed toward the distant white walls, "is coolness and pleasant welcome awaiting you."

His followers were out-and-out ragamuffins, wild-looking fellows with their unshaven cheeks and tangled hair and fierce eyes. Their spokesman stood apart in appearance as well as in position, being somewhat extravagantly dressed, showing much ornamentation both on his own person and that of his mount in the way of silver buckles and spangles. He was the youngest of the crowd, not over twenty-two or three from the look of him, with a nicely groomed black mustache. The horse under him was a superb creature, a great savage fiery-eyed sorrel stallion.

"Thanks," returned Barlow. "But my friend and I are on our way over there." He pointed. "We are students of entymology and are studyin' certain new butterflies." All along, until the very moment, he had fully intended explaining by saying they were on a hunting trip. But as he spoke it struck him that the slopes about his three peaks would not harbor a jack rabbit, and furthermore on the instant a big golden butterfly went flapping by him, putting the idea into his head.

The young Mexican nodded but insisted.

"There will be time for butterfly catching tomorrow," he said carelessly. "Today you will honor us by riding back to the Hacienda Montezuma. You are expected, se?ores; everything is prepared for you. Oyez, Pedro, Juanito," turning in his saddle and addressing two of his men. "Rope two horses and let los Americanos have yours." And when both Pedro and Juanito frowned and hesitated, his eyes flashed and he cried out angrily at them: "Pronto! It is commanded!"

They rode away toward a herd of horses half a mile down the valley, their riatas soon in their hands and widening and swinging into great loops. Presently they were back, leading two captured ponies. Dismounting, they made impromptu hackamores of their ropes and mounted bareback, leaving their own saddles empty for Kendric and Barlow.

"Look here, amigo," said Kendric then. "We're much obliged for the kind invitation. But you've got the wrong guests. If your outfit was expecting newcomers it was someone else."

The Mexican lifted his fine black brows.

"Then are you not Se?ores Kendric and Barlow?" he asked impudently.

They stared wonderingly at him, then at each other.

"You're some little guesser, stranger," grunted Barlow. "Who told you all you know?"

"Go easy, Twisty," laughed Kendric, his interest caught. Affably, to the Mexican, he said: "You're right, se?or. And, to complete the introductions, would you mind telling us who you are?"

"I?" He touched up his mustache and again his eyes flashed; involuntarily, as he spoke his name, he laid his hand on the grip of the revolver bumping at his hip, giving the perfectly correct impression that the man who wore that name must ever stand ready to defend himself: "I am Fernando Escobar, at your service for what you please, se?or!"

Never a muscle of either Kendric's face or Barlow's twitched at the information though inwardly each man started. Before now, many times in the flood of their tumultous lives, they had lived through moments when the thing to do was control all outward expression of emotion and think fast.

"I'd say, Twisty," said Kendric lightly, "that it is downright kind of Se?or Escobar to extend so hearty an invitation. It would be the pleasant thing to rest up in the shade during the afternoon. Tomorrow, perhaps, it could be arranged that he would let us have a couple of horses to make our little trip into the hills butterfly-catching?"

But Barlow, fingering his forelock, looked anything but pleased. His eyes went swiftly to the three peaks across the valley, then frowning up the valley to the ranch houses. Obviously, he meant to go straight about his business, all the more eager to come to grips with the naked situation since Escobar was on the ground and had made himself known. He opened his lips to speak. On the instant Kendric saw a swift, subtle change in his eyes, a look of surprise and of uncertainty. And then, abruptly, Barlow said:

"Oh, all right. I'm tired hoofin' it, anyway," and swung up into the saddle on the nearest horse, pack and all.

Escobar wheeled his horse, as though glad to have his errand done, and rode back toward the upper end of the valley, his ragged following close at his heels, Kendric and Barlow bringing up the rear.

"What was it, Twisty?" demanded Kendric softly. "What did you see? What made you change your mind all of a sudden."

"Look at the cordillera just back of the ranch house, Jim," answered Barlow, guardedly.

Kendric looked and in a moment understood Barlow's perplexity. There again were three upstanding peaks, much in general outline and height like those across the valley. For the life of him Barlow did not know which was the group toward which he had been directed by Juarez to steer his course. Doubtless Escobar did know. And if Escobar were going up valley, it would be just as well to go with him.

As they drew near the big adobe house both men were interested. The building had once upon a time, perhaps two or three hundreds of years ago, been a Spanish mission; so much was told eloquently by the lines of high adobe walls ringing the buildings and by the architecture of the main building itself. There were columns, arches, corridors after the old mission style. But it had all been made over, added to, so that it was now a residence of a score or more of rooms. It spread out covering the entire top of a knoll whereon were many large oaks. At the back, rising sharply, was the barren slope of the mountain.

Their gaze was drawn suddenly from the house itself to a rider darting out through the high arched gateway in the adobe wall. A beautiful horse, snowy, glistening white, groomed to the last hair, an animal of fine thin racing forelegs proudly lifted and high-flung head, shot out of the shadows like a shaft of sunlight. On its back what at first appeared an elegantly dressed young man, a youth even fastidiously and fancifully accoutered, with riding boots that shone and a flaunting white plume and red lined cape floating wildly. Only when the approaching rider came close and threw up a gauntleted hand to the wide black hat, saluting laughingly, did they recognize this for the same youth who had come with Ruiz Rios to Ortega's gambling house.

"Zoraida Castelmar!" gasped Kendric.

Turning in his amazement to his companion he caught a strange look in Barlow's eyes, a strange flush in Barlow's cheeks. Then he saw only the girl's dark, passionate face and scarlet lips and burning eyes as she called softly:

"Welcome to the Hacienda Montezuma! The gods have willed that you come. The gods and I!"

And into Kendric's bewildered face, ignoring Barlow, she laughed triumphantly.

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