MoboReader> Literature > Heart of the Sunset

   Chapter 1 THE WATER-HOLE

Heart of the Sunset By Rex Beach Characters: 19529

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


A fitful breeze played among the mesquite bushes. The naked earth, where it showed between the clumps of grass, was baked plaster hard. It burned like hot slag, and except for a panting lizard here and there, or a dust-gray jack-rabbit, startled from its covert, nothing animate stirred upon its face. High and motionless in the blinding sky a buzzard poised; long-tailed Mexican crows among the thorny branches creaked and whistled, choked and rattled, snored and grunted; a dove mourned inconsolably, and out of the air issued metallic insect cries-the direction whence they came as unascertainable as their source was hidden.

Although the sun was half-way down the west, its glare remained untempered, and the tantalizing shade of the sparse mesquite was more of a trial than a comfort to the lone woman who, refusing its deceitful invitation, plodded steadily over the waste. Stop, indeed, she dared not. In spite of her fatigue, regardless of the torture from feet and limbs unused to walking, she must, as she constantly assured herself, keep going until strength failed. So far, fortunately, she had kept her head, and she retained sufficient reason to deny the fanciful apprehensions which clamored for audience. If she once allowed herself to become panicky, she knew, she would fare worse-far worse-and now, if ever, she needed all her faculties. Somewhere to the northward, perhaps a mile, perhaps a league distant, lay the water-hole.

But the country was of a deadly and a deceitful sameness, devoid of landmarks and lacking well-defined water-courses. The unending mesquite with its first spring foliage resembled a limitless peach-orchard sown by some careless and unbelievably prodigal hand. Out of these false acres occasional knolls and low stony hills lifted themselves so that one came, now and then, to vantage-points where the eye leaped for great distances across imperceptible valleys to horizons so far away that the scattered tree-clumps were blended into an unbroken carpet of green. To the woman these outlooks were unutterably depressing, merely serving to reveal the vastness of the desolation about her.

At the crest of such a rise she paused and studied the country carefully, but without avail. She felt dizzily for the desert bag swung from her shoulder, only to find it flat and dry; the galvanized mouthpiece burned her fingers. With a little shock she remembered that she had done this very thing several times before, and her repeated forgetting frightened her, since it seemed to show that her mind had been slightly unbalanced by the heat. That perhaps explained why the distant horizon swam and wavered so.

In all probability a man situated as she was would have spoken aloud, in an endeavor to steady himself; but this woman did nothing of the sort. Seating herself in the densest shade she could find-it was really no shade at all-she closed her eyes and relaxed-no easy thing to do in such a stifling temperature and when her throat was aching with drought.

At length she opened her eyes again, only to find that she could make out nothing familiar. Undoubtedly she was lost; the water-hole might be anywhere. She listened tensely, and the very air seemed to listen with her; the leaves hushed their faint whisperings; a near-by cactus held its forty fleshy ears alert, while others more distant poised in the same harkening attitude. It seemed to the woman that a thousand ears were straining with hers, yet no sound came save only the monotonous crescendo and diminuendo of those locust-cries coming out of nowhere and retreating into the voids. At last, as if satisfied, the leaves began to whisper softly again.

Away to her left lay the yellow flood of the Rio Grande, but the woman, though tempted to swing in that direction, knew better than to yield. At least twenty miles of barrens lay between, and she told herself that she could never cover such a distance. No, the water-hole was nearer; it must be close at hand. If she could only think a little more clearly, she could locate it. Once more she tried, as she had tried many times before, to recall the exact point where she had shot her horse, and to map in her mind's eye the foot-weary course she had traveled from that point onward.

Desert travel was nothing new to her, thirst and fatigue were old acquaintances, yet she could not help wondering if, in spite of her training, in spite of that inborn sense of direction which she had prided herself upon sharing with the wild creatures, she were fated to become a victim of the chaparral. The possibility was remote; death at this moment seemed as far off as ever-if anything it was too far off. No, she would find the water-hole somehow; or the unexpected would happen, as it always did when one was in dire straits. She was too young and too strong to die yet. Death was not so easily won as this.

Rising, she readjusted the strap of the empty water-bag over her shoulder and the loose cartridge-belt at her hip, then set her dusty feet down the slope.

Day died lingeringly. The sun gradually lost its cruelty, but a partial relief from the heat merely emphasized the traveler's thirst and muscular distress. Onward she plodded, using her eyes as carefully as she knew how. She watched the evening flight of the doves, thinking to guide herself by their course, but she was not shrewd enough to read the signs correctly. The tracks she found were old, for the most part, and they led in no particular direction, nowhere uniting into anything like a trail. She wondered, if she could bring herself to drink the blood of a jack-rabbit, and if it would quench her thirst. But the thought was repellent, and, besides, she was not a good shot with a revolver. Nor did the cactus offer any relief, since it was only just coming into bloom, and as yet bore no fruit.

The sun had grown red and huge when at last in the hard-baked dirt she discovered fresh hoof-prints. These seemed to lead along the line in which she was traveling, and she followed them gladly, encouraged when they were joined by others, for, although they meandered aimlessly, they formed something more like a trail than anything she had as yet seen. Guessing at their general direction, she hurried on, coming finally into a region where the soil was shallow and scarcely served to cover the rocky substratum. A low bluff rose on her left, and along its crest scattered Spanish daggers were raggedly silhouetted against the sky.

She was in a well-defined path now; she tried to run, but her legs were heavy; she stumbled a great deal, and her breath made strange, distressing sounds as it issued from her open lips. Hounding the steep shoulder of the ridge, she hastened down a declivity into a knot of scrub-oaks and ebony-trees, then halted, staring ahead of her.

The nakedness of the stony arroyo, the gnarled and stunted thickets, were softened by the magic of twilight; the air had suddenly cooled; overhead the empty, flawless sky was deepening swiftly from blue to purple; the chaparral had awakened and echoed now to the sounds of life. Nestling in a shallow, flinty bowl was a pool of water, and on its brink a little fire was burning.

It was a tiny fire, overhung with a blackened pot; the odor of greasewood and mesquite smoke was sharp. A man, rising swiftly to his feet at the first sound, was staring at the new-comer; he was as alert as any wild thing. But the woman scarcely heeded him. She staggered directly toward the pond, seeing nothing after the first glance except the water. She would have flung herself full length upon the edge, but the man stepped forward and stayed her, then placed a tin cup in her hand. She mumbled something in answer to his greeting and the hoarse, raven-like croak in her voice startled her; then she drank, with trembling eagerness, drenching the front of her dress. The water was warm, but it was clean and delicious.

"Easy now. Take your time," said the man, as he refilled the cup. "It won't give out."

She knelt and wet her face and neck; the sensation was so grateful that she was tempted to fling herself bodily into the pool. The man was still talking, but she took no heed of what he said. Then at last she sank back, her feet curled under her, her body sagging, her head drooping. She felt the stranger's hands beneath her arms, felt herself lifted to a more comfortable position. Without asking permission, the stranger unlaced first one, then the other of her dusty boots, seeming not to notice her weak attempt at resistance. Once he had placed her bare feet in the water, she forgot her resentment in the intense relief.

The man left her seated in a collapsed, semi-conscious state, and went back to his fire. For the time she was too tired to do more than refill the drinking-cup occasionally, or to wet her face and arms, but as her pores drank greedily her exhaustion lessened and her vitality returned.

It was dark when for the first time she turned her head toward the camp-fire and stared curiously at the figure there. The appetizing odor of broiling bacon had drawn her attention, and as if no move went unnoticed the man said, without lifting his eyes:

"Let 'em soak! Supper'll be ready directly. How'd you like your eggs-if we had any?"

Evidently he expected no reply, for after a chuckle he began to whistle softly, in a peculiarly clear and liquid tone, almost like some bird-call. He had spoken with an unmistakable Texas drawl; the woman put him down at once for a cowboy. She settled her back against a boulder and rested.

The pool had become black and mysterious, the sky was studded with stars when he called her, and she laboriously drew on her stockings and boots. Well back from the fire he had

arranged a seat for her, using a saddle-blanket for a covering, and upon this she lowered herself stiffly. As she did so she took fuller notice of the man, and found his appearance reassuring.

"I suppose you wonder how I-happen to be here," she said.

"Now don't talk 'til you're rested, miss. This coffee is strong enough to walk on its hands, and I reckon about two cups of it'll rastle you into shape." As she raised the tin mug to her lips he waved a hand and smiled. "Drink hearty!" He set a plate of bread and bacon in her lap, then opened a glass jar of jam. "Here's the dulces. I've got a sort of sweet tooth in my head. I reckon you'll have to make out with this, 'cause I rode in too late to rustle any fresh meat, and the delivery-wagon won't be 'round before morning." So saying, he withdrew to the fire.

The woman ate and drank slowly. She was too tired to be hungry, and meanwhile the young man squatted upon his heels and watched her through the smoke from a husk cigarette. It was perhaps fortunate for her peace of mind that she could not correctly interpret his expression, for had she been able to do so she would have realized something of the turmoil into which her presence had thrown him. He was accustomed to meeting men in unexpected places-even in the desert's isolation-but to have a night camp in the chaparral invaded by a young and unescorted woman, to have a foot-sore goddess stumble out of the dark and collapse into his arms, was a unique experience and one calculated to disturb a person of his solitary habits.

"Have you had your supper?" she finally inquired.

"Who, me? Oh, I'll eat with the help." He smiled, and when his flashing teeth showed white against his leathery tan the woman decided he was not at all bad-looking. He was very tall and quite lean, with the long legs of a horseman-this latter feature accentuated by his high-heeled boots and by the short canvas cowboy coat that reached only to his cartridge-belt. His features she could not well make out, for the fire was little more than a bed of coals, and he fed it, Indian-like, with a twig or two at a time.

"I beg your pardon. I'm selfish." She extended her cup and plate as an invitation for him to share their contents. "Please eat with me."

But he refused. "I ain't hungry," he affirmed. "Honest!"

Accustomed as she was to the diffidence of ranch-hands, she refrained from urging him, and proceeded with her repast. When she had finished she lay back and watched him as he ate sparingly.

"My horse fell crossing the Arroyo Grande," she announced, abruptly.

"He broke a leg, and I had to shoot him."

"Is there any water in the Grande?" asked the man.

"No. They told me there was plenty. I knew of this charco, so I made for it."

"Who told you there was water in the arroyo?"

"Those Mexicans at the little-goat ranch."

"Balli. So you walked in from Arroyo Grande. Lord! It's a good ten miles straightaway, and I reckon you came crooked. Eh?"

"Yes. And it was very hot. I was never here but once, and-the country looks different when you're afoot."

"It certainly does," the man nodded. Then he continued, musingly: "No water there, eh? I figured there might be a little." The fact appeared to please him, for he nodded again as he went on with his meal. "Not much rain down here, I reckon."

"Very little. Where are you from?"

"Me? Hebbronville. My name is Law."

Evidently, thought the woman, this fellow belonged to the East outfit, or some of the other big cattle-ranches in the Hebbronville district. Probably he was a range boss or a foreman. After a time she said, "I suppose the nearest ranch is that Balli place?"

"Yes'm."

"I'd like to borrow your horse."

Mr. Law stared into his plate. "Well, miss, I'm afraid-"

She added, hastily, "I'll send you a fresh one by Balli's boy in the morning."

He looked up at her from under the brim of his hat. "D'you reckon you could find that goat-ranch by star-light, miss?"

The woman was silent.

"'Ain't you just about caught up on traveling, for one day?" he asked. "I reckon you need a good rest about as much as anybody I ever saw. You can have my blanket, you know."

The prospect was unwelcome, yet she reluctantly agreed. "Perhaps- Then in the morning-"

Law shook his head. "I can't loan you my horse, miss. I've got to stay right here."

"But Balli's boy could bring him back."

"I got to meet a man."

"Here?"

"Yes'm."

"When will he come?"

"He'd ought to be here at early dark to-morrow evening." Heedless of her dismay, he continued, "Yes'm, about sundown."

"But-I can't stay here. I'll ride to Balli's and have your horse back by afternoon."

"My man might come earlier than I expect," Mr. Law persisted.

"Really, I can't see what difference it would make. It wouldn't interfere with your appointment to let me-"

Law smiled slowly, and, setting his plate aside, selected a fresh cigarette; then as he reached for a coal he explained:

"I haven't got what you'd exactly call an appointment. This feller I'm expectin' is a Mexican, and day before yesterday he killed a man over in Jim Wells County. They got me by 'phone at Hebbronville and told me he'd left. He's headin' for the border, and he's due here about sundown, now that Arroyo Grande's dry. I was aimin' to let you ride his horse."

"Then-you're an officer?"

"Yes'm. Ranger. So you see I can't help you to get home till my man comes. Do you live around here?" The speaker looked up inquiringly, and after an instant's hesitation the woman said, quietly:

"I am Mrs. Austin." She was grateful for the gloom that hid her face.

"I rode out this way to examine a tract of grazing-land."

It seemed fully a minute before the Ranger answered; then he said, in a casual tone, "I reckon Las Palmas is quite a ranch, ma'am."

"Yes. But we need more pasture."

"I know your La Feria ranch, too. I was with General Castro when we had that fight near there."

"You were a Maderista?"

"Yes'm. Machine-gun man. That's a fine country over there. Seems like

God Almighty got mixed and put the Mexicans on the wrong side of the

Rio Grande. But I reckon you haven't seen much of La Feria since the

last revolution broke out."

"No. We have tried to remain neutral, but-" Again she hesitated. "Mr.

Austin has enemies. Fortunately both sides have spared La Feria."

Law shrugged his broad shoulders. "Oh, well, the revolution isn't over! A ranch in Mexico is my idea of a bad investment." He rose and, taking his blanket, sought a favorable spot upon which to spread it. Then he helped Mrs. Austin to her feet-her muscles had stiffened until she could barely stand-after which he fetched his saddle for a pillow. He made no apologies for his meager hospitality, nor did his guest expect any.

When he had staked out his horse for the night he returned to find the woman rolled snugly in her covering, as in a cocoon. The dying embers flickered into flame and lit her hair redly. She had laid off her felt Stetson, and one loosened braid lay over her hard pillow. Thinking her asleep, Law stood motionless, making no attempt to hide his expression of wonderment until, unexpectedly, she spoke.

"What will you do with me when your Mexican comes?" she said.

"Well, ma'am, I reckon I'll hide you out in the brush till I tame him.

I hope you sleep well."

"Thank you. I'm used to the open."

He nodded as if he well knew that she was; then, shaking out his slicker, turned away.

As he lay staring up through the thorny mesquite branches that roofed him inadequately from the dew he marveled mightily. A bright, steady-burning star peeped through the leaves at him, and as he watched it he remembered that this red-haired woman with the still, white face was known far and wide through the lower valley as "The Lone Star." Well, he mused, the name fitted her; she was, if reports were true, quite as mysterious, quite as cold and fixed and unapproachable, as the title implied. Knowledge of her identity had come as a shock, for Law knew something of her history, and to find her suing for his protection was quite thrilling. Tales of her pale beauty were common and not tame, but she was all and more than she had been described. And yet why had no one told him she was so young? This woman's youth and attractiveness amazed him; he felt that he had made a startling discovery. Was she so cold, after all, or was she merely reserved? Red hair above a pure white face; a woman's form wrapped in his blanket; ripe red lips caressing the rim of his mean drinking-cup! Those were things to think about. Those were pictures for a lonely man.

She had not been too proud and cold to let him help her. In her fatigue she had allowed him to lift her and to make her more comfortable. Hot against his palms-palms unaccustomed to the touch of woman's flesh-he felt the contact of her naked feet, as at the moment when he had placed them in the cooling water. Her feeble resistance had only called attention to her sex-to the slim whiteness of her ankles beneath her short riding-skirt.

Following his first amazement at beholding her had come a fantastic explanation of her presence-for a moment or two it had seemed as if the fates had taken heed of his yearnings and had sent her to him out of the dusk-wild fancies, like these, bother men who are much alone. Of course he had not dreamed that she was the mistress of Las Palmas. That altered matters, and yet-they were to spend a long idle day together. If the Mexican did not come, another night like this would follow, and she was virtually his prisoner. Perhaps, after all-

Dave Law stirred nervously and sighed.

"Don't this beat hell?" he murmured.

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