"EL TIGRE! Madre de Dios!" A man must indeed have the soul of a devil to draw such an exclamation at the mere mention of his name.
"The Tiger! Mother of God!"
We of Santa Ynez, a little handful of folks living in a little mission village, near the Mexican border, knew him only by reputation. But that was enough. Riders dropped in at the little cantina and over their cups of tequila or warm beer would tell us of some new deviltry done by Jeff Tigard, the killer. And Felipe's hands trembled as he drew the beer, while we laughed at him for being such a coward.
What would the Tiger do in Santa Ynez, we asked each other. There is nothing for him here.
"Who knows, señores?" trembled Felipe. "Always the tales come closer to Santa Ynez. Some day he will come."
"Perhaps to cut off your ears," laughed Ramon, who is very brave. "I hear that the Tiger strings them on a gold thread and wears them for a girdle."
"Diable!" swore Mendez, whose fierce beard belies his character. "Are we weaklings? One man—bah! Tiger, indeed! The devil may own his soul, but his body is mortal—and mortal man dies."
Mendez gulped his warm beer and waited for someone to challenge his statement. It was very warm in the little, one-story adobe cantina; too warm for heated argument, even over the Tiger.
"Mendez speaks true," nodded Pasquale, who is not a Mexican, but Italian. "Mortal man dies—when he is killed. That is the point, compadres. This Tiger will most surely die—when he is killed. More beer, Felipe."
"But why should the Tiger come to Santa Ynez?" asked Felipe nervously, clattering the mug-bottoms on the rough table-top.
"Dios!" swore Mendez angrily. "One might think he had sent you a message, Felipe. You are like a timid hen which hears the rustle of a hawk's wings in every stirring breeze."
Ramon laughed softly and drained his mug.
"Why should we have fear of that man? It is true that he has the soul of a devil. Men have told us that he is without a conscience and that he kills men for sport. It must be so.
"But we of Santa Ynez need not fear this man. We live at peace with everyone. Our vineyards are loaded, the hills are dotted with our cattle and horses and there is nothing but good in our hearts. There remains only the fact that Felipe serves his beer too warm." Ramon laughed joyously and slapped Mendez on the back.
"Is is not so, compadre? We do not fear the Tiger, eh?"
"Fear?" Mendez rumbled deep in his beard. "I fear no man. I am Mendez."
"And thou art full of warm beer," stated Pasquale, laughing loudly.
Mendez joined the laugh, even at his own expense, for Mendez was full of beer, which always makes him boastful, but not angry.
₪ IT WAS very hot in Santa Ynez, as I have said before, but that day it was oppressive. The very sky seemed to press down upon the earth. Even the cattle seemed to stand in silent wonder and did not eat.
The piñon pines on the high hills were as black blots against the sky-line, and the cañons seemed to send out faint whisperings to the hills and valleys. Perhaps the canons knew and were telling that a storm was coming.
But no whispering was needed to tell us that the Storm God was preparing for a ride through the valley of the Santa Ynez. Long lines of cattle were winding their way off the hills, like great jointed serpents, seeking the shelter of the lowlands.
The little street of the village was deserted. Not a horse was tied at the hitch-racks. The bright colors of the adobe houses had faded in that queer light, and were now only a gray.
Gone were the laughing voices of the children, which had filled the street. Even the dogs were in hiding. It was as if a great calamity had fallen, although there was nothing—except fear and caution.
And then, from the westward, high over the tops of the mountains, which look down upon the Pacific, came the cloud; like the belching of a mighty furnace. Swiftly it blotted out the sun, and a semidarkness settled upon the valley. But there was none of the coolness of the night.
At the door of the cantina we watched it come—that cloud. There were Ramon, Mendez, Pasquale, Pancho, a herder, Felipe and myself. None of us had wives to go home to.
We had been intently watching this cloud, but now the whole sky seemed overcast, dropping lower and lower, as if to crush out the world.
A dog started across the street toward us, but stopped, sniffing at the air. A gust of wind stirred the dust at its feet, and, with a whimper, as if of pain, it turned back, leaning sideways in its walk, as if bracing against the wind which had not yet come.
"Let us have beer," said Mendez softly. "Madre de Dios! That dog bracing against a ghost wind makes me weak of the spine."
"Thou art Mendez," said Pasquale, as if to remind Mendez of his former boasting.
"But I am not that Mendez. Just now I am sober, and I have no stomach to be sober at a time like this."
We went into the cantina. I think we were all in need of artificial courage. Felipe lighted the candles which guttered in the draught and cast grotesque shadows on the wall; shadows which danced drunkenly at our every move.
Felipe swore softly at his drawing. "Even the beer is wild tonight. I can not keep it in the mugs."
"That was ever my greatest trouble," laughed Mendez. "They are forever becoming empty. Hurry, Felipe, or I shall drink from the spigot."
The wind was wailing now, and from a distance came the jarring of thunder, like roll of a mighty drum. It was not good to hear. Then the candles paled in the flash of the lightning.
Mendez drained his mug and thrust it back at Felipe.
"More!" he panted. "Madre de Dios, what a night—for a sober man!"
He but echoed our sentiments. A drift of rain pattered upon the cantina. Then, like the roar of a stampeded herd, the storm was upon us. We sat in awe, as the cantina seemed to fairly writhe in the grasp of that mighty wind and the thunder beat a devil's tattoo on our very roof.
Flash after flash, so close together that they seemed one great light, the lightning seemed to hiss through that whirling, howling tempest. And the swirling candle flame danced the shadows on the wall, whenever the lightning ceased for a moment.
Felipe was praying on his knees, with his forehead against a beer cask. I think I laughed, but it was not with mirth. I could see Mendez, his eyes shut tight and lips moving. Perhaps I might have prayed, but I knew no prayer at that time. My thoughts were jumbled.
The door crashed open, letting in a mighty swirl of wind and rain, which extinguished the candles.
I sprang across the room and forced the door shut.
I thought there was some one near the door, but could not see. Ramon was lighting the candles, bringing the room back to a half-light again. The wind roared against the door, rattling the bar, as if angry at being cheated.
I was looking at Mendez and he was no longer praying. His eyes were wide open now and he was staring toward the door.
₪ I TURNED. Just between me and the door stood a man, whose eyes glittered like beads under the brim of his rain-drenched sombrero. The evils of purgatory in every line of his face; the hawk-like nose, scarred chin and thin-lipped, grinning mouth.'
Two heavy revolvers rested in holsters at his hips, and the cartridges in his crossed belts gleamed like points of light. He wore black leather chaparajos, with wide, flaring sides, which flopped like the wings of a great buzzard.
"Ha, ha, ha, ha!"
He laughed at us mockingly, while the water spewed off his clothes and ran in dirty puddles along the dirt floor.
"Welcome, señor," said Pasquale in a weak voice.
"What need have I of welcome?"
The man's voice was like the hoarse croak of an angry buzzard. He took a step forward and dropped his claw-like hands to his holsters.
"Afraid to talk?" he sneered. "Know who I am?"
He leered around at us and hunched his shoulders, as if about to attack.
"I am the Tiger."
No need to tell us that. We knew it. His looks did not belie his reputation. For he was every inch a killer.
Perhaps he could see the fear in our eyes and it served to fan his devilish egotism. He leered at Felipe, who crossed himself, and the action caused the Tiger much merriment.
"What do you want here?" queried Ramon huskily.
"Want? Ha, ha, ha, ha!"
He threw back his head and laughed, but his beady eyes watched closely.
"What does the Tiger always want?" He shoved out a claw-like hand, opening and closing it. "Gold! Give me your gold—all of it!"
"I have little gold, señor," whined Felipe. "We are poor people in Santa Ynez."
The storm still raged, but we gave it no heed now.
"Liars!" snarled the Tiger. "I teach men to tell the truth. Give me the gold, fool!"
Felipe got slowly to his feet and moved back of his small counter, where he kept his money.
"Stop!" commanded the Tiger. "Do you think I am a fool?"
Felipe stopped, and the Tiger went slowly over to him, keeping an eye on us all the while. He shoved Felipe aside and picked up the money box. It was nearly empty and the Tiger threw it aside with a curse.
"Were you expecting me?"
He shoved his evil face close to Felipe, as he spoke, and Felipe recoiled in terror.
"But I told you that we are poor men, señor," protested Felipe.
The Tiger drew a gun and struck Felipe a slashing blow on the head. Felipe crumpled at his feet. It was a dastardly thing to do, and I sprang to my feet, but the unwavering muzzle of the gun pointed straight at my middle and I sat down again.
Felipe tried to get to his feet, but the Tiger kicked him viciously.
"Fool! I said I wanted gold—not a few mangy silver coins."
"He has no gold," said Ramon softly. "He does not lie, señor."
"Did I speak to you?" asked the Tiger
It was a strange sight there in the little cantina. Poor Felipe sprawled at the feet of the Tiger, his hands outspread on the floor, while the Tiger leaned forward facing us, a snarl writhing his thin lips.
Ramon was backed against the table, and almost into Mendez's chair. Pasquale was sprawled forward, his arms on the tabletop, while I hunched in my chair, afraid to move, I think.
Suddenly the Tiger whipped off his dripping sombrero and sent it spinning on to the table. Aof the water struck me in the eyes, but I did not blink.
"Put your gold in the hat," said the Tiger. "I have stayed too long."
"But señor—" Ramon started to protest.
"Gold—not lies!" rasped the Tiger.
I moved my feet to enable me to get into my pocket, and they came in contact with something. It was Pancho under the table. I had forgotten him. For a moment I thought perhaps he was intending to shoot the Tiger. Pancho was armed, because I could see the butt of his pistol, but his attitude was one of cramped prayer.
I tossed my slender wallet into the hat and prayed that the Tiger might not see how meager it was. Behind me the door creaked, as if from the wind, but when I looked up at the Tiger I knew that it was not wind.
He was standing in the same position, gun leveled at us, but the sneer seemed frozen on his face and his eyes were dilated. I looked back.
At the closed door stood a man, empty-handed. He was dressed in the loose shirt, baggy pants, worn shoes of a peon. He wore no hat and his wet, colorless hair hung bedraggled about his face.
He was rather scrawny looking, thin of face, and his eyes were gray and very level. I glanced back at the Tiger. He had dropped the gun and stepped back against Felipe's counter. I think his eyes were closed, but it was hard to tell in that weak light.
"Welcome, señor," said Mendez huskily.
The man spoke softly, and there was a half-smile on his lips, as he crossed to the Tiger, who threw up one arm, as if to ward off a blow. It was as if he were hypnotized. We watched in amazement.
He looked down at Felipe and turned his head toward us, as he said, in Spanish,
"Move him to an easier position and wash away the blood."
Mendez and I picked him up and placed him near the table, but we were too interested to take time in doctoring poor Felipe. The Tiger had not moved. Now the stranger unbuckled the Tiger's belts and let them fall to the floor.
"Undress," ordered the stranger.
The Tiger slowly removed every garment, He seemed like a man asleep. Not once did he speak nor make a sign, and he stood there, stripped to the skin, while the stranger dressed in the cowboy garb, tossing the peon garments aside.
The stranger dumped the wallets out of the sombrero and put it on his head.
"It was astorm, señores," said the stranger softly. "It fairly blew my horse from under me, and at times I despaired of finishing my quest."
"Señor, we do not understand," said Ramon, pointing at the stripped Tiger.
"It is a short tale," smiled the stranger. "I was a guest at this man's house. It was miles from here. Not so far, perhaps, if one went as the crow flies, but there have been many twistings which made it long.
"This man had a wife, and but one bed. To me they gave the bed, because I was their guest. But I am not the kind of a man who deprives a woman; so I gave her the bed.
"This man did not know. I had much gold which he wanted. He thought that I was in that bed. That is the tale, señores. It was not nice."
He turned and motioned to the Tiger. The rain still whipped in from the west, but he drove the Tiger out into it, while we crowded into the doorway. Swiftly the stranger uncoiled a rope and dropped a loop around the neck of the Tiger, and mounted his horse.
"Señor," called Ramon, "we shall wonder much over this, and not know whom we shall mention in our prayers. Who art thou?"
And from out of the darkness, in the direction of the vanishing rider, came the words—
"Jefferson Tigard, señores; and thank you. Buenas noches."