The Folly of Others/The Sands of the Green River
THE SANDS OF THE GEEEN RIVER.
THE stout man on the half-broken mustang had ridden fifteen miles since breakfast, over a hard country and under the broiling sun of June, and he was in a bad temper. He pulled up, twitching viciously at the heavy Mexican bit, before a cabin built of adobe and driftwood—the only human sign visible between the low hills encircling the plain and the glittering shallows of the river. His brusque summons had no immediate answer.
In the foot-breadth of shade at the side of the cabin a half-clad brown child played beside a mongrel dog, which started up from its sleep and slunk out of sight, growling. The man shouted again, hoarsely, from a throat parched with alkali dust. His face was coated with the gray dust, and every fold of his clothes was full of it. The mustang, too, showed abundant evidence that the ride had not been a pleasant one. His red nostrils and heaving flanks streaked with blood witnessed that he had been hard pushed, and that his temper and his master's had come into frequent collision. The roweled spur and the curb, together with the weight of the rider, had got the best of it. The horse's flaring eyes and nervous trembling bespoke fear and pain; and a less ignorant or indifferent horseman would have seen that the heavy saddle had been placed too far forward and galled at every step.
"Look alive, there!" cried the man for the third time, with an angry oath. Out of pure ill-humor he shook his whip at the staring child, which thereupon screamed shrilly.
A woman came to the door of the cabin. She was a Mexican, young and pretty. A black shawl had been hastily twisted about her head and shoulders.
"Hello, there—you take your time," grumbled the visitor. "Is there a ford near here?"
The woman looked stupid, and said a few words in Spanish.
"Can't you speak English?" demanded the man, in disgust.
"Ver' little, señor," was the half-sullen, half-apologetic answer.
"Oh, well, I want to get across the river. Sabe?"
He explained himself by means of gestures, and the woman nodded and stepped over the threshold.
"That's right—you show me the way. And, say, give me a drink of water, will you, señora?"
The woman smiled constrainedly at this ironical title of courtesy; turned back into the hut, and reappeared with a tin cup.
"I bring it in a minute," she said, speaking with an ease which belied her look of dullness. She went into a sort of cellar dug from under the house, and dipped the cup into a brown earthen jar. The water was lukewarm and earthy, but the man swallowed it at a gulp. He took off his wide felt hat and wiped his forehead.
"Say, missus, have you seen any stray cattle hereabouts? We're branding over at my place, and a big bunch of 'em got away, or were stolen, most likely. Seen 'em, hay? Seen any cattle? Oh, blank these Greasers and their lingo, anyway!"
"Naw," said the woman, slowly; "I ain't seen any cattle."
"Well, look sharp if you do, that's all. A lot of you people around here have got into the way of thinking beef could be had for the killing—it ain't so any longer. The cattle in this valley belong to me—I've bought 'em, hoof and hide—sabe? And I wouldn't advise anybody to fool with my brand. If you've seen anything of this bunch, now, you'd better say so."
The woman shook her head and shot from under her black brows a swift look of dislike and fear.
"I show you where you can get across," she said, quickly.
But the man, bending forward to look up the river, had caught sight of something lying on the edge of the plot of cultivated ground behind the cabin. He struck the spurs into his horse and sprang past the woman. "Look there!" he cried, pointing the handle of his whip at the hide and horns of a newly-killed steer. He flung himself to the ground, catching his foot awkwardly in the cumbrous stirrup.
"That's one of 'em, I'll swear! That's the bunch I'm after. Now, my girl, just tell me where the rest of 'em are!"
He went close up to her, dragging at the lariat coiled round the pommel of his saddle. An ugly frown further disfigured his reddened face.
"I don't know, señor," she cried, retreating before him into the hut. "My husband is not at home—he kill the steer yesterday, but not steal it! It belong to him."
"Likely!" sneered the man. "Perhaps your husband thinks the whole Rio Verde ranch belongs to him. But I lay he'll find out the difference. And if he isn't at home, it's probably because he's off with the rest of the bunch, eh?"
"No, no, señor! Pedro he went to town this mornin' to buy flour. He ain't no thief!"
"But he's been in the habit of killing cattle on this ranch just the same, hasn't he? Oh, don't deny it. I know all the Greasers round here have lived for years off the Rio Verde—no rent to pay, and meat for the killing! But things are changed now, see—and you've got to learn it. I reckon we'll have to make an example. String up one man, and it'll do more good than ten years' talking."
The woman shrank away from him as he spoke, and her eyes glowed in the darkness of the cabin like a wild-cat's.
"Lord, how they hate me! I've seen that look more'n once in the last month! You'd be glad enough to stick a knife in me if you could—wouldn't you, my dear? But now, see here, señora, I can't take your word for that man of yours, much as I hate to disoblige a pretty woman like yourself. But if it turns out that he's gone to town for flour and not across country with my beef, why so much the better for him. And in that case I won't be too hard on him for this one steer. Give me a kiss, Black Eyes, and we'll call it square—only look out that he don't make the mistake again!"
"Go away!" said the woman menacingly. "Go away, or I not show you the way across the river!"
"Well, suppose you don't? My horse can swim it, I guess—and I don't believe it's more'n a yard deep anyhow. You can't scare me that way!"
With this he caught her by the shoulder and kissed her brown cheek above the shawl. And then as she swung herself toward the table and snatched up the knife with which she had been peeling onions, he backed out of the door, laughing foolishly.
"When it comes to a knife and a Greaser together I admit I'm out of it! I've had plenty of warnings against the combination and laid 'em to heart. So adios, señora, if you're going to come that on me! You had better show me the crossing, though—it won't do you any harm, and may do some good, when your man and I settle our account. Come, be obliging—I'm off, you see."
He put one foot in the stirrup, swung himself off the ground, and in spite of the mustang's sidelong jump managed to clamber into the saddle.
"I tell you nothing!" shouted the woman, and she came to the door, the knife still clenched in her hand. Her face was pallid and set in anger.
With an insolent stare the man fished a dime out of his pocket and tossed it toward her.
"All right," he said, "that's for the kiss; so I don't owe you anything. Remember, though, you owe me something, and you'll have to pay, too," and he flourished his whip threateningly toward the disputed hide.
The mustang leaped as the spurs struck its flanks, and tore down the bank to the river. The woman shouted something in Spanish, which went unheeded as the buzzing of an angry fly. Yet a human life hung on those words.
She trod the coin into the dirt with her bare heel and clenched her hands at her sides, as, with head lowered and thrust forward, she watched the man ride up the banks, looking for footprints that might indicate the point of passage.
The river spread out in broad, shallow levels between stretches of sand and stones, which the spring rains flooded and the summer drought had gradually bared. The water ran, now, not with vernal speed, yet with a fair current, smooth at the surface, except where it frothed slyly against an irregular line of stones, set at wide intervals across. It flashed back the sunlight in sheets of fierce silver, dazzling the eye, which found no rest in the scanty fringe of gray-green cottonwoods along the high-water mark, or the green-gray straggling sage-brush on either side.
The woman shaded her eyes with her shawl and watched the horseman as he turned and came slowly back to the spot where the line of stones seemed to make a ford. He hesitated, though the water appeared scarcely deep enough to hide the sand of its bed. It might be guessed that he could not swim, and that he was unacquainted with the river, though he had learned enough of the character of the country to distrust it. Similar mountain-born streams too often became dangerous by reason of their erratic flow, and the sudden floods which cut deep grooves and rolled boulders in the channel of shifting and treacherous sand. Among these the Green River bore an ill name, though the stranger seemed unaware of it; for, having looked about him undecidedly for some moments, he at last spurred his horse into the shallow water.
The woman fled into the house, muttering the names of saints and an appeal to the Merciful Mary to witness that she, Poncha, was all but guiltless in the matter.
"Save him if thou wilt, O Maria! I have done nothing, thou seest!"
She dropped down on a stool, and pulled the cotton gown off her shoulder, which showed the marks of rough fingers. Tears of rage came into her eyes. She rubbed her cheek, where he had touched it, with the edge of her shawl.
"But I hate him! I wish that I had flung the knife—or that——"
She became silent and listened, holding her breath. Then suddenly she wrapped her head in the shawl and clapped her hands over her ears. The child crawled up to her and tugged at her dress, whimpering.
Outside, the silence of the torrid noon, in which the flow of the river made scarce a ripple, was broken suddenly by a shout, hoarse and inarticulate—the man was expostulating with his horse. Then came a short, sharp cry of terror. If these sounds reached the woman's ears through the muffling shawl, she gave no sign, save to crouch lower and hide her face. Perhaps she knew it out of her power to undo what she had done—to save the man Maria had abandoned. She clasped her hands about her head to shut out those cries, menacing, terrified, despairing. The voice died away in a long, inhuman howl.
In the silence at last the house-dog began to bark. The child, which had gone to sleep on its mother's skirts, awoke. But the woman did not stir till a hand was laid on her shoulder. Then she sprang to her feet with a shriek.
"Oh, Pedro! O Dios, my heart!—you frightened me!"
She clung to his arm, one hand pressing her bosom, and looked past him fearfully. The man's young stolid face expressed nothing but good humor. He pulled away his arm, smiling, and emptied his pockets of some small brown paper parcels.
"But where is the dinner, Ponchita?" he asked, with a glance at the small, rickety stove, where the fire had died out.
"Oh, dinner—I have been so frightened, Pedro—mio!"
And she began to sob, her face contorted like a child's.
"Eh, what is that, Ponchita—what has happened?"
Seeing that for the moment she could not speak, he went out and began untying the flour-sack, which was fastened to the saddle on the back of a small broncho.
The woman followed him slowly to the doorway and looked out over the bare river banks and the glittering water. All at once she stopped crying. When her husband had set the bag of flour in a corner of the cabin, and stood brushing the dust from his gray shirt, she caught him again by the arm, and told in quick sentences the incident of the morning.
"He saw the hide. He said we had stolen it. He said you had driven off the cattle. They were going to hang a man for a warning to thieves. He threatened me. He——"
With a passionate gesture she pointed to the black marks on her shoulder and the dully glowing red spot on her cheek. Pedro rolled out a slow Spanish oath.
"I know a Yankee has bought the Rio Verde. They are branding. After this things will be harder—beasts, to fence in the country and destroy a man's living. But that was not his steer. I took it before he saw the ranch."
His eyes glowed, too, as they rested on his wife's face.
"And then?" he asked.
"He wanted to know the crossing, and he threw me that money. I would not tell him."
"No? And which way did he go?"
Poncha lifted her arm and pointed to the line of stones. She stood erect now in the doorway. Her black brows were drawn level over her eyes, fierce as a mountain cat's in the shadow.
Pedro uttered an exclamation, and stared.
"He was caught? But I did not hear——"
"It was—soon over. He could not swim, I think. I heard. No one else."
Pedro's brown face became of a sickly hue.
"They will trace him," he whispered.
"No. Why should it be known that he come here? There are a dozen other places on the river—it was chance, or it was the will of God."
And Poncha crossed herself swiftly.
Pedro walked away, with a curious stiffness in his gait, down the river bank. Twice he stooped and carefully smoothed away an impression in the sand between the stones. At the water's edge he stood for a few moments staring out; then turned and came slowly back. He took the saddle and bridle off the broncho and turned the animal loose; then went past his wife, but without looking at her, into the house.
"Get some dinner," he said.
A dull silence fell upon the place. The woman moved about noiselessly on her bare feet. She built a trifle of fire, and the little cabin grew hotter even than the outside air; but the man sat still by the table, his heavy face moody and perplexed.
"We may suffer for it," he said once.
"If it is the will of God," replied Poncha, with prompt devotion. In crossing herself her fingers touched the reddened cheek.
The smooth roll of the river was once more audible. Through the door could be seen its metallic glitter between the stretches of white pebbles polished like bones. Swinging steadily on, it scarcely showed the ripple of the current; except where, bubbling against the sunken line of stones, it seemed to murmur in an eager undertone.