This story is most blood-and-thundery, but, then, it is true. It is one of the stories of Alfred; but Alfred is not the hero of it at all--quite another man, not nearly so interesting in himself as Alfred.
At the time, Alfred and this other man, whose name was Tom, were convoying a band of Mexican vaqueros over to the Circle-X outfit. The Circle-X was in the heat of a big round-up, and had run short of men. So Tom and Alfred had gone over to Tucson and picked up the best they could find, which best was enough to bring tears to the eyes of an old-fashioned, straight-riding, swift-roping Texas cowman. The gang was an ugly one: it was sullen, black-browed, sinister. But it, one and all, could throw a rope and cut out stock, which was not only the main thing--it was the whole thing.
Still, the game was not pleasant. Either Alfred or Tom usually rode night-herd on the ponies--merely as a matter of precaution--and they felt just a trifle more shut off by themselves and alone than if they had ridden solitary over the limitless alkali of the Arizona plains. This feeling struck in the deeper because Tom had just entered one of his brooding spells. Tom and Alfred had been chums now for close on two years, so Alfred knew enough to leave him entirely alone until he should recover.
The primary cause of Tom's abstraction was an open-air preacher, and the secondary cause was, of course, a love affair. These two things did not connect themselves consciously in Tom's mind, but they blended subtly to produce a ruminative dissatisfaction.
When Tom was quite young he had fallen in love with a girl back in the Dakota country. Shortly after a military-post had been established near by, and Anne Bingham had ceased to be spoken of by mayors' daughters and officers' wives. Tom, being young, had never quite gotten over it. It was still part of his nature, and went with a certain sort of sunset, or that kind of star-lit evening in which an imperceptible haze dims the brightness of the heavens.
The open-air preacher had chosen as his text the words, "passing the love of woman," and Tom, wandering idly by, had caught the text. Somehow ever since the words had run in his mind. They did not mean anything to him, but merely repeated themselves over and over, just as so many delicious syllables which tickled the ear and rolled succulently under the tongue. For, you see, Tom was only an ordinary battered Arizona cow-puncher, and so, of course, according to the fireside moralists, quite incapable of the higher feelings. But the words reacted to arouse memories of black-eyed Anne, and the memories in turn brought one of his moods.
Tom, and Alfred, and the ponies, and the cook-wagon, and the cook, and the Mexican vaqueros had done the alkali for three days. Underfoot had been an exceedingly irregular plain; overhead an exceedingly bright and trying polished sky; around about an exceedingly monotonous horizon-line and dense clouds of white dust. At the end of the third day everybody was feeling just a bit choked up and tired, and, to crown a series of petty misfortunes, the fire failed to respond to Black Sam's endeavours. This made supper late.
Now at one time in this particular locality Arizona had not been dry and full of alkali. A mighty river, so mighty that in its rolling flood no animal that lives to-day would have had the slightest chance, surged down from the sharp-pointed mountains on the north, pushed fiercely its way through the southern plains, and finally seethed and boiled in eddies of foam out into a southern sea which has long since disappeared. On its banks grew strange, bulbous plants. Across its waters swam uncouth monsters with snake-like necks. Over it alternated storms so savage that they seemed to rend the world, and sunshine so hot that it seemed that were it not for the bulbous plants all living things would perish as in an oven.
In the course of time conditions changed, and the change brought the Arizona of to-day. There are now no turbid waters, no bulbous plants, no uncouth beasts, and, above all, no storms. Only the sun and one other thing remain: that other thing is the bed of the ancient stream.
On one side--the concave of the curve--is a long easy slope, so gradual that one hardly realises where it shades into the river-bottom itself. On the other--the convex of the curve--where the swift waters were turned aside to a new direction, is a high, perpendicular cliff running in an almost unbroken breastwork for a great many miles, and baked as hard as iron in this sunny and almost rainless climate. Occasional showers have here and there started to eat out little transverse gullies, but with a few exceptions have only gone so far as slightly to nick the crest. The exceptions, reaching to the plain, afford steep and perilous ascents to the level above. Anyone who wishes to pass the barrier made by the primeval river must hunt out for himself one of these narrow passages.
On the evening in question the cowmen had made camp in the hollow beyond the easy slope. On the rise, sharply silhouetted against the west, Alfred rode wrangler to the little herd of ponies. Still farther westward across the plain was the clay-cliff barrier, looking under the sunset like a narrow black ribbon. In the hollow itself was the camp, giving impression in the background of a scattering of ghostly mules, a half-circle of wagons, ill-defined forms of recumbent vaqueros, and then in the foreground of Sam with his gleaming semicircle of utensils, and his pathetic little pile of fuel which would not be induced to gleam at all.
For, as has been said, Black Sam was having great trouble with his fire. It went out at least six times, and yet each time it hung on in a flickering fashion so long that he had felt encouraged to arrange his utensils and distribute his provisions. Then it had expired, and poor Sam had to begin all over again. The Mexicans smoked yellow-paper cigarettes and watched his off-and-on movements with sullen distrust; they were firmly convinced that he was indulging in some sort of a practical joke. So they hated him fervently and wrapped themselves in their serapes. Tom sat on a wagon-tongue swinging a foot and repeating vaguely to himself in a singsong inner voice, "passing the love of woman, passing the love of woman," over and over again. His mind was a dull blank of grayness. From time to time he glanced at Sam, but with no impatience: he was used to going without. Sam was to him a matter of utter indifference.
As to the cook himself, he had a perplexed droop in every curve of his rounded shoulders. His kinky gray wool was tousled from perpetual undecided scratching, and his eyes had something of the dumb sadness of the dog as he rolled them up in despair. Life was not a matter of indifference to him. Quite the contrary. The problem of damp wood + matches = cooking-fire was the whole tangle of existence. There was something pitiable in it. Perhaps this was because there is something more pathetic in a comical face grown solemn than in the most melancholy countenance in the world.
At last the moon rose and the fire decided to burn. With the seventh attempt it flared energetically; then settled to a steady glow of possible flap-jacks.
But its smoke was bitter, and the evening wind fitful. Bitter smoke on an empty stomach might be appropriately substituted for the last straw of the proverb--when the proverb has to do with hungry Mexicans. Most of the recumbent vaqueros merely cursed a little deeper and drew their serapes closer, but Jose Guiterrez grunted, threw off his blanket, and approached the fire.
Sam rolled the whites of his eyes up at him for a moment, grinned in a half-perplexed fashion, and turned again to his pots and pans. Jose, being sulky and childish, wanted to do something to somebody, so he insolently flicked the end of his long quirt through a mess of choice but still chaotic flap-jacks. The quirt left a narrow streak across the batter. Sam looked up quickly.
"Doan you done do dat!" he said, with indignation.
He looked upon the turkey-like Jose for a heavy moment, and then turned back to the cooking. In rescuing an unstable coffee-pot a moment later, he accidentally jostled against Jose's leg. Jose promptly and fiercely kicked the whole outfit into space. The frying-pan crowned a sage-brush; the coffee-pot rolled into a hollow, where it spouted coffee-grounds and water in a diminishing stream; the kettle rolled gently on its side; flap-jacks distributed themselves impartially and moistly; and, worst of all, the fire was drowned out altogether.
Black Sam began stiffly to arise. The next instant he sank back with a gurgle in his throat and a knife thrust in his side.
The murderer stood looking down at his victim. The other Mexicans stared. The cowboy jumped up from the tongue of the wagon, drew his weapon from the holster at his side, took deliberate aim, and fired twice. Then he turned and began to run toward Alfred on the hill.
A cowboy cannot run so very rapidly. He carries such a quantity of dunnage below in the shape of high boots, spurs, chaps, and cartridge-belts that his gait is a waddling single-foot. Still, Tom managed to get across the little stony ravine before the Mexicans recovered from their surprise and became disentangled from their ponchos. Then he glanced over his shoulder. He saw that some of the vaqueros were running toward the arroya, that some were busily unhobbling the mules, and that one or two had kneeled and were preparing to shoot. At the sight of these last, he began to jump from side to side as he ran. This decreased his speed. Half-way up the hill he was met by Alfred on his way to get in the game, whatever it might prove to be. The little man reached over and grasped Tom's hand. Tom braced his foot against the stirrup, and in an instant was astride behind the saddle. Alfred turned up the hill again, and without a word began applying his quirt vigorously to the wiry shoulders of his horse. At the top of the hill, as they passed the grazing ponies, Tom turned and emptied the remaining four chambers of his revolver into the herd. Two ponies fell kicking; the rest scattered in every direction. Alfred grunted approvingly, for this made pursuit more difficult, and so gained them a little more time.
Now both Alfred and Tom knew well enough that a horse carrying two men cannot run away from a horse carrying one man, but they also knew the country, and this knowledge taught them that if they could reach the narrow passage through the old clay bluff, they might be able to escape to Peterson's, which was situated a number of miles beyond. This would be possible, because men climb faster when danger is behind them than when it is in front. Besides, a brisk defence could render even an angry Mexican a little doubtful as to just when he should begin to climb. Accordingly, Alfred urged the pony across the flat plain of the ancient riverbed toward the nearest and only break in the cliff. Fifteen miles below was the regular passage. Otherwise the upper mesa was as impregnable as an ancient fortress. The Mexicans had by this time succeeded in roping some of the scattered animals, and were streaming over the brow of the hill, shouting wildly. Alfred looked back and grinned. Tom waved his wide sombrero mockingly.
When they approached the ravine, they found the sides almost perpendicular and nearly bare. Its bed was V-shaped, and so cut up with miniature gullies, fantastic turrets and spires, and so undermined by former rains as to be almost impassable. It sloped gently at first, but afterward more rapidly, and near the top was straight up and down for two feet or more. As the men reached it, they threw themselves from the horse and commenced to scramble up, leading the animal by the bridle-rein. From riding against the sunset their eyes were dazzled, so this was not easy. The horse followed gingerly, his nose close to the ground.
It is well known that quick, short rains followed by a burning sun tend to undermine the clay surface of the ground and to leave it with a hard upper shell, beneath which are cavities of various depths. Alfred and Tom, as experienced men, should have foreseen this, but they did not. Soon after entering the ravine the horse broke through into one of the underground cavities and fell heavily on his side. When he had scrambled somehow to his feet, he stood feebly panting, his nostrils expanded.
"How is it, Tom?" called Alfred, who was ahead.
"Shoulder out," said Tom, briefly.
Alfred turned back without another word, and putting the muzzle of his pistol against the pony's forehead just above the line of the eyes he pulled the trigger. With the body the two men improvised a breastwork across a little hummock. Just as they dropped behind it the Mexicans clattered up, riding bareback. Tom coolly reloaded his pistol.
The Mexicans, too, were dazzled from riding against the glow in the west, and halted a moment in a confused mass at the mouth of the ravine. The two cowboys within rose and shot rapidly. Three Mexicans and two ponies fell. The rest in wild confusion slipped rapidly to the right and left beyond the Americans' line of sight. Three armed with Winchesters made a long detour and dropped quietly into the sage-brush just beyond accurate pistol-range. There they lay concealed, watching. Then utter silence fell.
The rising moon shone full and square into the ravine, illuminating every inch of the ascent. A very poor shot could hardly miss in such a light and with such a background. The two cowmen realised this and settled down more comfortably behind their breastwork. Tom cautiously raised the pony's head with a little chunk of rock, thus making a loophole through which to keep tab on the enemy, after which he rolled on his belly and began whittling in the hard clay, for Tom had the carving habit--like many a younger boy. Alfred carefully extracted a short pipe from beneath his chaparajos, pushed down with his blunt forefinger the charge with which it was already loaded, and struck a match. He poised this for a moment above the bowl of the pipe.
"What's the row anyway?" he inquired, with pardonable curiosity.
"Now, it's jest fifteen mile to th' cut," said Tom, disregarding Alfred's question entirely, "an' of co'se they's goin' to send a posse down thar on th' keen jump. That'll take clost onto three hours in this light. Then they'll jest pot us a lot from on top."
Alfred puffed three times toward the moonlight, and looked as though the thing were sufficiently obvious without wasting so much breath over it.
"We've jest got to git out!" concluded Tom, earnestly.
"An' how are we goin' to do it?"
Alfred paused in the act of blowing a cloud.
"Because, if we makes a break, those Greasers jest nat'rally plugs us from behind th' minute we begins to climb."
Alfred condescended to nod. Tom suspended his whittling for a reply.
"Well," said Alfred, taking his pipe from his mouth--Tom contentedly took up whittling again--"there's only one way to do it, and that's to keep them so damn busy in front that they can't plug us."
Tom looked perplexed.
"We just got to take our chances on the climbing. Of course, there's bound to be th' risk of accident. But when I give th' word, you mosey, and if one of them pots you, it'll be because my six-shooter's empty."
"But you can't expec' t' shoot an' climb!" objected Tom.
"Course not," replied Alfred, calmly. "Division of labour: you climb; I shoot."
A light dawned in Tom's eyes, and he shut his jaws with a snap.
"I guess not!" said he, quietly.
"Yo' laigs is longer," Alfred urged, in his gentle voice, "and yo'll get to Peterson's quicker;" and then he looked in Tom's eyes and changed his tone. "All right!" he said, in a business-like manner. "I'll toss you for it."
For reply, Tom fished out an old pack of cards.
"I tell you," he proposed, triumphantly, "I'll turn you fer it. First man that gits a jack in th' hand-out stays."
He began to manipulate the cards, lying cramped on his side, and in doing so dropped two or three. Alfred turned to pick them up. Tom deftly slipped the jack of diamonds to the bottom of the pack. He inserted in the centre those Alfred handed him, and began at once to deal.
"Thar's yore's," he said, laying out the four of clubs, "an' yere's mine," he concluded, producing the jack of diamonds. "Luck's ag'in me early in th' game," was his cheerful comment.
For a minute Alfred was silent, and a decided objection appeared in his eyes. Then his instinct of fair play in the game took the ascendant. He kicked off his chaps in the most business-like manner, unbuckled his six-shooter and gave it to Tom, and perched his hat on the end of his quirt, which he then raised slowly above the pony's side for the purpose of drawing the enemy's fire. He did these things quickly and without heroics, because he was a plainsman. Hardly had the bullets from three Winchesters spatted against the clay before he was up and climbing for dear life.
The Mexicans rushed to the opening from either side, fully expecting to be able either to take wing-shots at close range, or to climb so fast as to close in before the cowboys would have time to make a stand at the top. In this they shut off their most effective fire--that of the three men with the Winchesters--and, instead of getting wing-shots themselves, they received an enthusiastic battering from Tom at the range of six yards. Even a tenderfoot cannot over-shoot at six yards. What was left of the Mexicans disappeared quicker than they had come, and the three of the Winchesters scuttled back to cover like a spent covey of quail.
Tom then lit Alfred's pipe, and continued his excellent sculpture in the bed of hard clay. He knew nothing more would happen until the posse came. The game had passed out of his hands. It had become a race between a short-legged man on foot and a band of hard riders on the backs of very good horses. Viewing the matter dispassionately, Tom would not have cared to bet on the chances.
As has been stated, Alfred was a small man and his legs were short--and not only short, but unused to exertion of any kind, for Alfred's daylight hours were spent on a horse. At the end of said legs were tight boots with high French heels, which most Easterners would have considered a silly affectation, but which all Westerners knew to be purposeful in the extreme--they kept his feet from slipping forward through the wide stirrups. In other respects, too, Alfred was handicapped. His shoulders were narrow and sloping and his chest was flat. Indoors and back East he would probably have been a consumptive; out here, he was merely short-winded.
So it happened that Alfred lost the race.
The wonder was not that he lost, but that he succeeded in finishing at Peterson's at all. He did it somehow, and even made a good effort to ride back with the rescuing party, but fell like a log when he tried to pick up his hat. So someone took off his boots, also, and put him to bed.
As to the rescuing party, it disbanded less than an hour later. Immediately afterward it reorganized into a hunting party--and its game was men. The hunt was a long one, and the game was bagged even unto the last, but that is neither here nor there.
Poor Tom was found stripped to the hide, and hacked to pieces. Mexicans are impulsive, especially after a few of them have been killed. His equipment had been stolen. The naked horse and the naked man, bathed in the light of a gray dawn, that was all--except that here and there fluttered bits of paper that had once been a pack of cards. The clay slab was carved deeply--a man can do much of that sort of thing with two hours to waste. Most of the decorative effects were arrows, or hearts, or brands, but in one corner were the words, "passing the love of woman," which was a little impressive after all, even though Tom had not meant them, being, as I said, only an ordinary battered Arizona cow-puncher incapable of the higher feelings.
How do I know he played the jack of diamonds on purpose? Why, I knew Tom, and that's enough.