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   Chapter 2 THE AMBUSH

Heart of the Sunset By Rex Beach Characters: 23559

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Alaire Austin slept badly. The day's hardships had left their traces. The toxins of fatigue not only poisoned her muscles with aches and pains, but drugged her brain and rendered the night a long succession of tortures during which she experienced for a second time the agonies of thirst and fatigue and despair. Extreme physical ordeals, like profound emotional upheavals, leave imprints upon the brain, and while the body may recover quickly, it often requires considerable time to rest exhausted nerves. The finer the nervous organism, the slower is the process of recuperation. Like most normal women, Alaire had a surprising amount of endurance, both nervous and muscular, but, having drawn heavily against her reserve force, she paid the penalty. During the early hours of the night she slept hardly at all, and as soon as her bodily discomfort began to decrease her mind became unruly. Twice she rose and limped to the water-hole for a drink, and it was not until nearly dawn that she dropped off into complete unconsciousness. She was awakened by a sunbeam which pierced her leafy shelter and with hot touch explored her upturned face.

It was still early; the sun had just cleared the valley's rim and the ground was damp with dew. Somewhere near by an unfamiliar bird was sweetly trilling. Alaire listened dreamily until the bird-carol changed to the air of a familiar cowboy song, then she sat up, queerly startled.

David Law was watering his horse, grooming the animal meanwhile with a burlap doth. Such attention was unusual in a stock country where horses run wild, but this horse, Mrs. Austin saw, justified unusual care. It was a beautiful blood-bay mare, and as the woman looked it lifted its head, then with wet, trembling muzzle caressed its owner's cheek. Undoubtedly this attention was meant for a kiss, and was as daintily conferred as any woman's favor. It brought a reward in a lump of sugar. There followed an exhibition of equine delight; the mare's lips twitched, her nose wrinkled ludicrously, she stretched her neck and tossed her head as the sweetness tickled her palate. Even the nervous switching of her tail was eloquent of pleasure. Meanwhile the owner showed his white teeth in a smile.

"Good morning," said Mrs. Austin.

Law lifted his hat in a graceful salute as he approached around the edge of the pool, his spurs jingling musically. The mare followed.

"You have a fine horse, there."

"Yes'm. Her and me get along all right. I hope we didn't wake you, ma'am."

"No. I was too tired to sleep well."

"Of course. I heard you stirring about during the night." Law paused, and the mare, with sharp ears cocked forward, looked over his shoulder inquisitively. "Tell the lady good morning, Bessie Belle," he directed. The animal flung its head high, then stepped forward and, stretching its neck, sniffed doubtfully at the visitor.

"What a graceful bow!" Mrs. Austin laughed. "You taught her that, I presume."

"Yes'm! She'd never been to school when I got her; she was plumb ignorant. But she's got all the airs of a fine lady now. Sometimes I go without sugar, but Bessie Belle never does."

"And you with a sweet tooth!"

The Ranger smiled pleasantly. "She's as easy as a rockin'-chair. We're kind of sweethearts. Ain't we, kid?" Again Bessie Belle tossed her head high. "That's 'yes,' with the reverse English," the speaker explained. "Now you just rest yourself, ma'am, and order your breakfast. What 'll it be-quail, dove, or cottontail?"

"Why-whatever you can get."

"That ain't the kind of restaurant we run. Bessie Belle would sure be offended if she understood you. Ever see anybody call a quail?"

"Can it really be done?"

Law's face brightened. "You wait." He led his mare down the arroyo, then returned, and, taking his Winchester from its scabbard, explained: "There's a pair of 'top-knots' on that side-hill waitin' for a drink. Watch 'em run into my lap when I give the distress signal of our secret order." He skirted the water-hole, and seated himself with his heels together and his elbows propped upon his spread knees in the military position for close shooting. From where he sat he commanded an unobstructed view of the thicket's edge. Next he moistened his lips and uttered an indescribable low whistle. At intervals he repeated the call, while the woman looked on with interest. Suddenly out of the grass burst a blue quail, running with wings outstretched and every feather ruffled angrily. It paused, the man's cheeks snuggled against the stock of his gun, and the bark of the thirty-thirty sounded loudly. Mrs. Austin saw that he had shot the little bird's head off. She spoke, but he stilled her with a gesture, threw in a second shell, and repeated his magic call. There was a longer wait this time, but finally the performance was repeated. The marksman rose, picked up the two birds, and came back to the camping-place.

"Kind of a low-down trick when they've just started housekeeping, ain't it?" he smiled.

Mrs. Austin saw that both crested heads had been cleanly severed. "That is quite wonderful" she said. "You must be an unusually good shot."

"Yes'm. You can fool turkeys the same way. Turkeys are easy."

"What do you say to them? What brings them out, all ruffled up?" she asked, curiously.

Law had one of the birds picked by this time. "I tell 'em a snake has got me. I reckon each one thinks the other is in trouble and comes to the rescue. Anyhow, it's a mighty mean trick."

He would not permit her to help with the breakfast, so she lay back enjoying the luxury of her hard bed and watching her host, whose personality, now that she saw him by daylight, had begun to challenge her interest. Of late years she had purposely avoided men, and circumstances had not permitted her to study those few she had been forced to meet; but now that fate had thrown her into the company of this stranger, she permitted some play to her curiosity.

Physically Law was of an admirable make-considerably over six feet in height, with wide shoulders and lean, strong limbs. Although his face was schooled to mask all but the keenest emotions, the deftness of his movements was eloquent, betraying that complete muscular and nervous control which comes from life in the open. A pair of blue-gray, meditative eyes, with a whimsical fashion of wrinkling half-shut when he talked, relieved a countenance that otherwise would have been a trifle grim and somber. The nose was prominent and boldly arched, the ears large and pronounced and standing well away from the head; the mouth was thin-lipped and mobile. Alaire tried to read that bronzed visage, with little success until she closed her eyes and regarded the mental image. Then she found the answer: Law had the face and the head of a hunter. The alert ears, the watchful eyes, the predatory nose were like those of some hunting animal. Yes, that was decidedly the strongest impression he gave. And yet in his face there was nothing animal in a bad sense. Certainly it showed no grossness. The man was wild, untamed, rather than sensual, and despite his careless use of the plains vernacular he seemed to be rather above the average in education and intelligence. At any rate, without being stupidly tongue-tied, he knew enough to remain silent when there was nothing to say, and that was a blessing, for Mrs. Austin herself was not talkative, and idle chatter distressed her.

On the whole, when Alaire had finished her analysis she rather resented the good impression Law had made upon her, for on general principles she chose to dislike and distrust men. Rising, she walked painfully to the pond and made a leisurely toilet.

Breakfast was ready when she returned, and once more the man sat upon his heels and smoked while she ate. Alaire could not catch his eyes upon her, except when he spoke, at which time his gaze was direct and open; yet never did she feel free from his intensest observation.

After a while she remarked: "I'm glad to see a Ranger in this county. There has been a lot of stealing down our way, and the Association men can't seem to stop it. Perhaps you can."

"The Rangers have a reputation in that line," he admitted. "But there is stealing all up and down the border, since the war. You lost any stuff?"

"Yes. Mostly horses."

"Sure! They need horses in Mexico."

"The ranchers have organized. They have formed a sort of vigilance committee in each town, and talk of using bloodhounds."

"Bloodhounds ain't any good, outside of novels. If beef got scarce, them Greasers would steal the dogs and eat 'em." He added, meditatively, "Dog ain't such bad eatin', either."

"Have you tried it?"

Mr. Law nodded. "It was better than some of the army beef we got in the Philippines." Then, in answer to her unspoken inquiry, "Yes'm, I served an enlistment there."

"You-were a private soldier?"

"Yes'm."

Mrs. Austin was incredulous, and yet she could not well express her surprise without too personal an implication. "I can't imagine anybody-that is, a man like you, as a common soldier."

"Well, I wasn't exactly that," he grinned. "No, I was about the most UNcommon soldier out there. I had a speakin' acquaintance with most of the guard-houses in the islands before I got through."

"But why did you enlist-a man like you?"

"Why?" He pondered the question. "I was young. I guess I needed the excitement. I have to get about so much or I don't enjoy my food."

"Did you join the Maderistas for excitement?"

"Mostly. Then, too, I believed Panchito Madero was honest and would give the peons land. An honest Mexican is worth fightin' for, anywhere. The pelados are still struggling for their land-for that and a chance to live and work and be happy."

Mrs. Austin stirred impatiently. "They are fighting because they are told to fight. There is no PATRIOTISM in them," said she.

"I think," he said, with grave deliberateness, "the majority feel something big and vague and powerful stirring inside them. They don't know exactly what it is, perhaps, but it is there. Mexico has outgrown her dictators. They have been overthrown by the same causes that brought on the French Revolution."

"The French Revolution!" Alaire leaned forward, eying the speaker with startled intensity. "You don't talk like a-like an enlisted man. What do you know about the French Revolution?"

Reaching for a coal, the Ranger spoke without facing her. "I've read a good bit, ma'am, and I'm a noble listener. I remember good, too. Why, I had a picture of the Bastille once." He pronounced it "Bastilly," and his hearer settled back. "That was some calaboose, now, wasn't it?" A moment later he inquired, ingenuously, "I don't suppose you ever saw that Bastille, did you?"

"No. Only the place where it stood."

"Sho! You must have traveled right smart for such a young lady." He beamed amiably upon her.

"I was educated abroad, and I only came home-to be married."

Law noted the lifeless way in which she spoke, and he understood. "I'll bet you hablar those French and German lingoes like a native," he ventured. "Beats me how a person can do it."

"You speak Spanish, don't you?"

"Oh yes. But I was born in Mexico, as near as I can make out."

"And you probably speak some of the Filipino dialects?"

"Yes'm, a few."

There was something winning about this young man's modesty, and something flattering in his respectful admiration. He seemed, also, to know his place, a fact which was even more in his favor. Undoubtedly he had force and ability; probably his love of adventure and a happy lack of settled purpose had led him to neglect his more commonplace opportunities and sent him first into the army and thence into the Ranger service. T

he world is full of such, and the frontier is their gathering-place. Mrs. Austin had met a number of men like Law, and to her they seemed to be the true soldiers of fortune-fellows who lived purely for the fun of living, and leavened their days with adventure. They were buoyant souls, for the most part, drifting with the tide, resentful of authority and free from care; meeting each day with enthusiastic expectancy for what it held in store. They were restless and improvident; the world counted them ne'er-do-wells, and yet she knew that at least their hours were full and that their names-some of them-were written large in the distant places. Alaire Austin often told herself that, had she been born a man, such a life as this might have been hers, and she took pleasure in dreaming sometimes of the experience that fate, in such a case, would have brought to her.

Being a woman, however, and being animated at this particular moment by a peculiarly feminine impulse, she felt urged to add her own touch to what nature had roughed out. This man had been denied what she termed an education; therefore she decided to put one in his way.

"Do you like to read?" she asked him.

"Say! It's my favorite form of exercise." Law's blue-gray eyes were expressionless, his face was bland. "Why?"

"I have a great many books at Las Palmas. You might enjoy some of them."

"Now that's nice of you, ma'am. Mebbe I'll look into this cattle-stealin' in your neighborhood, and if I do I'll sure come borrowin'."

"Oh, I'll send you a boxful when I get back," said Alaire, and Dave thanked her humbly.

Later, when he went to move his mare into a shady spot, the Ranger chuckled and slapped his thigh with his hat. "Bessie Belle, we're going to improve our minds," he said, aloud. "We're going to be literary and read Pilgrim's Progress and Alice in Wonderland. I bet we'll enjoy 'em, eh? But-doggone! She's a nice lady, and your coat is just the same color as her hair."

Where the shade was densest and the breeze played most freely, there Dave fixed a comfortable couch for his guest, and during the heat of the forenoon she dozed.

Asleep she exercised upon him an even more disturbing effect than when awake, for now he could study her beauty deliberately, from the loose pile of warm, red hair to the narrow, tight-laced boots. What he saw was altogether delightful. Her slightly parted lips offered an irresistible attraction-almost an invitation; the heat had lent a feverish flush to her cheeks; Dave could count the slow pulsations of her white throat. He closed his eyes and tried to quell his unruly longings. He was a strong man; adventurous days and nights spent in the open had coarsened the masculine side of his character, perhaps at expense to his finer nature, for it is a human tendency to revert. He was masterful and ruthless; lacking obligations or responsibilities of any sort, he had been accustomed to take what he wanted; therefore the gaze he fixed upon the sleeping woman betrayed an ardor calculated to deepen the color in her cheeks, had she beheld it.

And yet, strangely enough, Dave realized that his emotions were unaccountably mixed. This woman's distress had, of course, brought a prompt and natural response; but now her implicit confidence in his honor and her utter dependence upon him awoke his deepest chivalry. Then, too, the knowledge that her life was unhappy, indeed tragic, filled him with a sort of wondering pity. As he continued to look at her these feelings grew until finally he turned away his face. With his chin in his hands he stared out somberly into the blinding heat. He had met few women, of late years, and never one quite like this-never one, for instance, who made him feel so dissatisfied with his own shortcomings.

After a time he rose and withdrew to the shelter of another tree, there to content himself with mental images of his guest.

But one cannot sleep well with a tropic sun in the heavens, and since there was really nothing for her to do until the heat abated, Alaire, when she awoke, obliged the Ranger to amuse her.

Although she was in fact younger than he, married life had matured her, and she treated him therefore like a boy. Law did not object. Mrs. Austin's position in life was such that most men were humble in her presence, and now her superior wisdom seemed to excite the Ranger's liveliest admiration. Only now and then, as if in an unguarded moment, did he appear to forget himself and speak with an authority equaling her own. What he said at such times indicated either a remarkably retentive memory or else an ability to think along original lines too rare among men of his kind to be easily credited.

For instance, during a discussion of the Mexican situation-and of course their talk drifted thither, for at the moment it was the one vitally interesting topic along the border-he excused the barbarous practices of the Mexican soldiers by saying:

"Of course they're cruel, vindictive, treacherous, but after all there are only a hundred and forty generations between us and Adam; only a hundred and forty lifetimes since the Garden of Eden. We civilized peoples are only a lap or two ahead of the uncivilized ones. When you think that it takes ten thousand generations to develop a plant and root out some of its early heredities, you can see that human beings have a long way yet to go before they become perfect. We're creatures of environment, just like plants. Environment has made the Mexican what he is."

Certainly this was an amazing speech to issue from a sun-browned cowboy sitting cross-legged under a mesquite-tree.

From under her hat-brim Alaire Austin eyed the speaker with a curiosity into which there had come a vague hostility. For the moment she was suspicious and piqued, but Law did not appear to notice, and as he talked on her doubts gradually subsided.

"You said, last night, that you were born on the other side?" She inclined her ruddy head to the west.

"Yes'm. My father was a mining man, and he done well over there until he locked horns with the Guadalupes. Old Don Enrique and him had a run-in at the finish, over some land or something. It was when the Don was gobbling all the property in the state, and laying the foundation for his big fortune. You know he had permission from the president to steal all the land he cared to, just like the rest of those local governors had. Well, Guadalupe tried to run my people out."

"Did he succeed?"

"No'm. He killed 'em, but they stayed."

"Not-really?" The listener was shocked. "American citizens, too?"

"Times wasn't much different then than now. There's plenty of good Americans been killed in Mexico and nothing done about it, even in our day. I don't know all the details-never could get 'em, either-for I was away at school; but after I came back from the Philippines the Madero fuss was just brewing, so I went over and joined it. But it didn't last long, and there wasn't enough fighting to suit me. I've been back, off and on, since, and I've burned a good deal of Guadalupe property and swum a good many head of Guadalupe stock."

As the morning progressed Law proved himself an interesting companion, and in spite of the discomforts of the situation the hours slipped past rapidly. Luncheon was a disagreeable meal, eaten while the arroyo baked and the heat devils danced on the hills; but the unpleasantness was of brief duration, and Law always managed to banish boredom. Nor did he seem to waste a thought upon the nature of that grim business which brought him to this place. Quite the contrary, in the afternoon he put his mare through her tricks for Alaire's edification, and gossiped idly of whatever interested his guest.

Then as the sun edged to the west and Mrs. Austin became restless, he saddled Bessie Belle and led her down the gulch into a safer covert.

Returning, he carefully obliterated all traces of the camp. He watered the ashes of the fire, gathered up the tell-tale scraps of paper and fragments of food, and then when the place suited him fell to examining his rifle.

Alaire watched him with interest. "Where shall I go," she asked, "and what shall I do?"

"You just pick out a good cover beyond the water-hole and stay there, ma'am. It may be a long wait, for something may have happened. If so we'll have to lie close. And don't worry yourself none, ma'am; he won't make no trouble."

The afternoon drew to a close. Gradually the blinding white glare of the sun lessened and yellowed, the shadow of the bluffs began to stretch out. The shallow pool lay silent, deserted save for furtive little shapes that darted nervously out of the leaves, or for winged visitors that dropped out of the air.

With the sunset there came the sound of hoofs upon loose stones, branches rustled against breasting bodies, and Mrs. Austin cowered low in her hiding-place. But it was only the advance-guard of a bunch of brush cattle coming to water. They paused at a distance, and nothing except their thirst finally overcame their suspicions. One by one they drifted into sight, drank warily at the remotest edge of the tanque, then, alarmed at some imaginary sight or sound, went clattering up the ravine.

Once again the water-hole lay sleeping.

Alaire's retreat was far from comfortable; there was an ants' nest somewhere near her and she thought of moving; but suddenly her breath caught and her heart jumped uncontrollably. She crouched lower, for directly opposite her position, and outlined against the sky where the sharp ridge cut it, was the figure of a mounted man. Rider and horse were silhouetted against the pearl-gray heaven like an equestrian statue. How long they had been there Alaire had no faintest notion. Perhaps it was their coming which had alarmed the cattle. She was conscious that a keen and hostile pair of eyes was searching the coverts surrounding the charco. Then, as silently as it had appeared, the apparition vanished beyond the ridge, and Alaire wondered if the rider had taken alarm. She earnestly hoped so; this breathless vigil was getting on her nerves, and the sight of that threatening figure had set her pulses to throbbing. The rider was on his guard, that was plain; he was armed, too, and probably desperate. The ominous possibilities of this ambush struck her forcibly.

Alaire lay close, as she had been directed, praying that the horseman had been warned; but shortly she heard again the rustle of stiff branches, and out into the opening rode a Mexican. He was astride a wiry gray pony, and in the strong twilight Alaire could see his every feature-the swarthy cheeks, the roving eyes beneath the black felt hat. A carbine lay across his saddle-horn, a riata was coiled beside his leg, a cartridge-belt circled his waist. There was something familiar about the fellow, but at the moment Alaire could not determine what it was.

After one swift appraising glance the new-comer rode straight to the verge of the water-hole and dismounted; then he and his horse drank side by side.

It was the moment for a complete and effective surprise, but nothing happened. Why didn't Law act? Alaire bent low, straining eyes and ears, but no command came from the Ranger. After a while the traveler rose to his feet and stretched his limbs. Next he walked to the ashes of the fire and looked down at them, stirring them with his toe. Apparently satisfied, he lit a cigarette.

Could it be that something had gone wrong with the Ranger's plan? Had something happened to him? Alaire was startled by the possibility; this delay was beyond her comprehension.

Then, as if in answer to her perplexity, a second horseman appeared, and the woman realized how simply she had been fooled.

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