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   Chapter 4 AN EVENING AT LAS PALMAS

Heart of the Sunset By Rex Beach Characters: 19152

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Although the lower counties of southwest Texas are flat and badly watered, they possess a rich soil. They are favored, too, by a kindly climate, subtropic in its mildness. The days are long and bright and breezy, while night brings a drenching dew that keeps the grasses green. Of late years there have been few of those distressing droughts that gave this part of the state an evil reputation, and there has been a corresponding increase in prosperity. The Rio Grande, jaundiced, erratic as an invalid, wrings its saffron blood from the clay bluffs and gravel ca?ons of the hill country, but near its estuary winds quietly through a low coastal plain which the very impurities of that blood have richened. Here the river's banks are smothered in thickets of huisache, ebony, mesquite, oak, and alamo.

Railroads, those vitalizing nerve-fibers of commerce, are so scarce along this division of the border that even in this day when we boast, or lament, that we no longer have a frontier, there remain in Texas sections larger than some of our Eastern states which hear the sound of iron wheels only on their boundaries. To travel from Brownsville north along the international line one must, for several hundred miles, avail oneself of horses, mules, or motor-cars, since rail transportation is almost lacking. And on his way the traveler will traverse whole counties where the houses are jacals, where English is a foreign tongue, and where peons plow their fields with crooked sticks as did the ancient Egyptians.

That part of the state which lies below the Nueces River was for a time disputed territory, and long after Texans had given their lives to drive the Eagle of Mexico across the Rio Grande much of it remained a forbidden land. Even to-day it is alien. It is a part of our Southland, but a South different to any other that we have. Within it there are no blacks, and yet the whites number but one in twenty. The rest are swarthy, black-haired men who speak the Spanish tongue and whose citizenship is mostly a matter of form.

The stockmen, pushing ahead of the nesters and the tillers of the soil, were the first to invade the lower Rio Grande, and among these "Old Ed" Austin was a pioneer. Out of the unmapped prairie he had hewed a foothold, and there, among surroundings as Mexican as Mexico, he had laid the beginnings of his fortune.

Of "Old Ed's" early life strange stories are told; like the other cattle barons, he was hungry for land and took it where or how he could. There are tales of fertile sections bought for ten cents an acre, tales of Mexican ranchers dispossessed by mortgage, by monte, or by any means that came to hand; stories even of some, more stubborn than the rest, who refused to feed the Austin greed for land, and who remained on their farms to feed the buzzards instead. Those were crude old days; the pioneers who pushed their herds into the far pastures were lawless fellows, ruthless, acquisitive, mastered by the empire-builder's urge for acres and still more acres. They were the Reclaimers, the men who seized and held, and then seized more, concerning themselves little or not at all with the moral law as applicable to both Mexican and white, and leaving it to the second generation to justify their acts, if ever justification were required.

As other ranches grew under the hands of such unregenerate owners, so also under "Old Ed" Austin's management did Las Palmas increase and prosper. The estate took its name from a natural grove of palms in which the house was built; it comprised an expanse of rich river-land backed by miles of range where "Box A" cattle lived and bred. In his later years the old man sold much land, and some he leased; but when he handed Las Palmas to his son, "Young Ed," as a wedding gift, the ranch still remained a property to be proud of, and one that was known far and wide for its size and richness. Leaving his boy to work out of it a fortune for himself and his bride, the father retired to San Antonio, whither the friends and cronies of his early days were drifting. There he settled down and proceeded to finish his allotted span exactly as suited him best. The rancher's ideal of an agreeable old age comprised three important items-to wit, complete leisure, unlimited freedom of speech, and two pints of rye whisky daily. He enjoyed them all impartially, until, about a year before this story opens, he died profanely and comfortably. He had a big funeral, and was sincerely mourned by a coterie of gouty old Indian-fighters.

Las Palmas had changed greatly since Austin, senior, painfully scrawled his slanting signature to the deed. It was a different ranch now to what the old man had known; indeed, it was doubtful if he would have recognized it, for even the house was new.

Alaire had some such thought in mind as she rode up to the gate on the afternoon following her departure from the water-hole, and she felt a thrill of pride at the acres of sprouting corn, the dense green fields of alfalfa so nicely fitted between their fences. They were like clean, green squares of matting spread for the feet of summer.

A Mexican boy came running to care for her horse, a Mexican woman greeted her as she entered the wide, cool hall and went to her room. Alaire had ridden far. Part of the night had been spent at the Balli goat-ranch, the remainder of the journey had been hot and dusty, and even yet she was not wholly recovered from her experience of the outward trip.

The house servants at Las Palmas were, on the whole, well trained, and Mrs. Austin's periodic absences excited no comment; in the present instance, Dolores fixed a bath and laid out clean clothes with no more than a running accompaniment of chatter concerned with household affairs. Dolores, indeed, was superior to the ordinary servant; she was a woman of some managerial ability, and she combined the duties of personal maid with those of housekeeper. She was a great gossip, and possessed such a talent for gaining information that through her husband, Benito, the range boss, she was able to keep her mistress in fairly intimate touch with ranch matters.

Alaire, however, was at this moment in no mood to resume the tiresome details of management; she quickly dismissed her servitor and proceeded to revel in the luxury of a cool bath, after which she took a nap. Later, as she leisurely dressed herself, she acknowledged that it was good to feel the physical comforts of her own house, even though her home-coming gave her no especial joy. She made it a religious practice to dress for dinner, regardless of Ed's presence, though often for weeks at a time she sat in solitary state, presiding over an empty table. Nevertheless, she kept to her custom, for not only did the formality help her to retain her own self-respect, but it had its influence upon the servants. Without companionship one needs to be ever upon guard to retain the nice refinements of gentle breeding, and any one who has exercised authority in savage countries soon learns the importance of leaving unbridged the gulf of color and of class.

But Alaire looked forward to no lonely dinner to-night, for Ed was at home. It was with a grave preoccupation that she made herself ready to meet him.

Dolores bustled in for a second time and straightway launched herself into a tirade against Juan, the horse-boy.

"Devil take me if there was ever such a shameless fellow," she cried, angrily. "He delights in tormenting me, and-Dios!-he is lazier than a snake. Work? Bah! He abhors it. All day long he snaps his revolver and pretends to be a bandido, and when he is not risking hell's fire in that way he is whirling his riata and jumping through it. Useless capers! He ropes the dog, he ropes the rose-bushes, he ropes fat Victoria, the cook, carrying a huge bowl of hot water to scald the ants' nest. Victoria's stomach is boiled red altogether, and so painful that when she comes near the stove she curses in a way to chill your blood. What does he do this morning but fling his wicked loop over a calf's head and break off one of its little horns. It was terrible; but Se?or Austin only laughed and told him he was a fine vaquero."

"Has Mr. Austin been here all the time?"

"Yes."

"Has he-drunk much?"

"Um-m. No more than common. He is on the gallery now with his cocktails."

"He knows I am at home?"

"I told him."

Alaire went on dressing. After a little she asked: "Has Benito finished branding the calves in the south pasture?"

"He finished yesterday and sent the remuda to the Six Mile. José Sanchez will have completed the rodeo by this afternoon. Benito rode in last night to see you."

"By the way, you know José's cousin, Panfilo?"

"Si."

"Why did he leave Las Palmas?"

Dolores hesitated so long that her mistress turned upon her with a look of sharp inquiry.

"He went to La Feria, se?ora." Then, in a lowered tone: "Mr. Austin ordered it. Suddenly, without warning, he sent him away, though Panfilo did not wish to go, Benito told me all about it."

"Why was he transferred? Come! What ails your tongue, Dolores?"

"Well, I keep my eyes open and my ears, too. I am no fool-" Dolores paused doubtfully.

"Yes, yes!"

Dolores drew closer. "Rosa Morales-you know the girl? Her father works the big pump-engine at the river. Well, he is not above anything, that man; not above selling his own flesh and blood, and the girl is no better. She thinks about nothing except men, and she attends all the bailes for miles around, on both sides of the river. Pa

nfilo loved her; he was mad about her. That's why he came here to work."

"They were engaged, were they not?"

"Truly. And Panfilo was jealous of any man who looked at Rosa. Now you can understand why-he was sent away." Dolores's sharp eyes narrowed meaningly. "Se?or Ed has been riding toward the river every day, lately. Panfilo was furious, so-"

"I see! That is all I care to hear." Alone, Alaire stood motionless for some time, her face fixed, her eyes unseeing; but later, when she met her husband in the dining-room, her greeting was no less civil than usual.

Ed acknowledged his wife's entrance with a careless nod, but did not trouble to remove his hands from his pockets. As he seated himself heavily at the table and with unsteady fingers shook the folds from his napkin, he said:

"You stayed longer than you intended. Um-m-you were gone three days, weren't you?"

"Four days," Alaire told him, realizing with a little inward start how very far apart she and Ed had drifted. She looked at him curiously for an instant, wondering if he really could be her husband, or-if he were not some peculiarly disagreeable stranger.

Ed had been a handsome boy, but maturity had vitiated his good looks. He was growing fat from drink and soft from idleness; his face was too full, his eyes too sluggish; there was an unhealthy redness in his cheeks. In contrast to his wife's semi-formal dress, he was unkempt-unshaven and soiled. He wore spurred boots and a soft shirt; his nails were grimy. When in the city he contrived to garb himself immaculately; he was in fact something of a dandy; but at home he was a sloven, and openly reveled in a freedom of speech and a coarseness of manner that were sad trials to Alaire. His preparations for dinner this evening had been characteristically simple; he had drunk three dry cocktails and flung his sombrero into a corner.

"I've been busy while you were gone," he announced. "Been down to the pump-house every day laying that new intake. It was a nasty job, too. I had Morales barbecue a cabrito for my lunch, and it was good, but I'm hungry again." Austin attacked his meal with an enthusiasm strange in him, for of late his appetite had grown as errant as his habits. Ed boasted, in his clubs, that he was an outdoor man, and he was wont to tell his friends that the rough life was the life for him; but as a matter of fact he spent much more time in San Antonio than he did at home, and each of his sojourns at Las Palmas was devoted principally to sobering up from his last visit to the city and to preparing for another. Nor was he always sober even in his own house; Ed was a heavy and a constant drinker at all times. What little exercise he took was upon the back of a horse, and, as no one knew better than his wife, the physical powers he once had were rapidly deteriorating.

By and by he inquired, vaguely: "Let's see, … Where did you go this time?"

"I went up to look over that Ygnacio tract."

"Oh yes. How did you find it?"

"Not very promising. It needs a lot of wells."

"I haven't been out that way since I was a boy. Think you'll lease it?"

"I don't know. I must find some place for those La Feria cattle."

Austin shook his head. "Better leave 'em where they are, until the rebels take that country. I stand mighty well with them."

"That's the trouble," Alaire told him. "You stand too well-so well that I want to get my stock out of Federal territory as soon as possible."

Ed shrugged carelessly. "Suit yourself; they're your cows."

The meal went on with a desultory flow of small talk, during which the husband indulged his thirst freely. Alaire told him about the accident to her horse and the unpleasant ordeal she had suffered in the mesquite.

"Lucky you found somebody at the water-hole," Ed commented. "Who was this Ranger? Never heard of the fellow," he commented on the name. "The Rangers are nothing like they used to be."

"This fellow would do credit to any organization." As Alaire described how expeditiously Law had made his arrest and handled his man, her husband showed interest.

"Nicolas Anto, eh?" said he, "Who was his companero?"

"Panfilo Sanchez."

Ed started. "That's strange! They must have met accidentally."

"So they both declared. Why did you let Panfilo go?"

"We didn't need him here, and he was too good a man to lose, so-" Ed found his wife's eyes fixed upon him, and dropped his own. "I knew you were short-handed at La Feria." There was an interval of silence, then Ed exclaimed, testily, "What are you looking at?"

"I wondered what you'd say."

"Eh? Can't I fire a man without a long-winded explanation?" Something in Alaire's expression warned him of her suspicion; therefore he took refuge behind an assumption of anger. "My God! Don't I have a word to say about my own ranch? Just because I've let you run things to suit yourself-"

"Wait! We had our understanding." Alaire's voice was low and vibrant. "It was my payment for living with you, and you know it. You gave me the reins to Las Palmas so that I'd have something to do, something to live for and think about, except-your actions. The ranch has doubled in value, every penny is accounted for, and you have more money to spend on yourself than ever before. You have no reason to complain."

Austin crushed his napkin into a ball and flung it from him; with a scowl he shoved himself back from the table.

"It was an idiotic arrangement, just the same. I agreed because I was sick. Dad thought I was all shot to pieces. But I'm all right now and able to run my own business."

"Nevertheless, it was a bargain, and it will stand. If your father were alive he'd make you live up to it."

"Hell! You talk as if I were a child," shouted her husband; and his plump face was apoplectic with rage. "The title is in my name. How could he make me do anything?"

"Nobody could force you," his wife said, quietly. "You are still enough of a man to keep your word, I believe, so long as I observe my part of our bargain?"

Ed, slightly mollified, agreed. "Of course I am; I never welched. But I won't be treated as an incompetent, and I'm tired of these eternal wrangles and jangles."

"You HAVE welched."

"Eh?" Austin frowned belligerently.

"You agreed to go away when you felt your appetite coming on, and you promised to live clean, at least around home."

"Well?"

"Have you done it?"

"Certainly. I never said I'd cut out the booze entirely."

"What about your carousals at Brownsville?"

Austin subsided sullenly. "Other men have got full in Brownsville."

"No doubt. But you made a scandal. You have been seen with-women, in a good many places where we are known."

"Bah! There's nothing to it."

Alaire went on in a lifeless tone that covered the seething emotions within her. "I never inquire into your actions at San Antonio or other large cities, although of course I have ears and I can't help hearing about them; but these border towns are home to us, and people know me. I won't be humiliated more than I am; public pity is-hard enough to bear. I've about reached the breaking-point."

"Indeed?" Austin leaned forward, his eyes inflamed. His tone was raised, heedless of possible eavesdroppers. "Then why don't you end it? Why don't you divorce me? God knows I never see anything of you. You have your part of the house and I have mine; all we share in common is meal-hours, and-and a mail address. You're about as much my wife as Dolores is."

Alaire turned upon him eyes dark with misery. "You know why I don't divorce you. No, Ed, we're going to live out our agreement, and these Brownsville episodes are going to cease." Her lips whitened. "So are your visits to the pumping-station."

"What do you mean by that?"

"You transferred Panfilo because he was growing jealous of you and

Rosa."

Ed burst into sudden laughter. "Good Lord! There's no harm in a little flirtation. Rosa's a pretty girl."

His wife uttered a breathless, smothered exclamation; her hands, as they lay on the table-cloth, were tightly clenched. "She's your tenant-almost your servant. What kind of a man are you? Haven't you any decency left?"

"Say! Go easy! I guess I'm no different to most men." Austin's unpleasant laughter had been succeeded by a still more unpleasant scowl. "I have to do SOMETHING. It's dead enough around here-"

"You must stop going there."

"Humph! I notice YOU go where YOU please. Rosa and I never spent a night together in the chaparral-"

"Ed!" Alaire's exclamation was like the snap of a whip. She rose and faced her husband, quivering as if the lash had stung her flesh.

"That went home, eh? Well, I'm no fool! I've seen something of the world, and I've found that women are about like men. I'd like to have a look at this David Law, this gunman, this Handsome Harry who waits at water-holes for ladies in distress." Ed ignored his wife's outflung hand, and continued, mockingly: "I'll bet he's all that's manly and splendid, everything that I'm NOT."

"You'd-better stop," gasped the woman. "I can't stand everything."

"So? Well, neither can I."

"After-this, I think you'd better go-to San Antonio. Maybe I'll forget before you come back."

To this "Young Ed" agreed quickly enough. "Good!" said he. "That suits me. It's hell around Las Palmas, anyhow, and I'll at least get a little peace at my club." He glowered after his wife as she left the room. Then, still scowling, he lurched out to the gallery where the breeze was blowing, and flung himself into a chair.

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