By Gordon Young & Jack Holt
THIS happened between sunset and dawn one night, not on, but rather close to, the Mexican border where José Juarez, the gambler, somewhat tentatively held a place of respect for himself in the Tarantula Dance and Gambling Hall. José was quiet, unobtrusive. He had hard eyes and nimble fingers and wore his holster high on the left of his breast in such a way that it was concealed by the serape always thrown across the shoulder.
Doug Walsh, who was suspected of having more notches on his guns—he packed two—than graves he had filled, but who nevertheless was with good reason feared, sometimes boasted that he would shortly find out just how quickly that greaser could draw. But for some cause or other he, like the cowboys that flocked around the bar and grumbled about a Mexican treating himself as their equal, hesitated to come to gun-play; although, Heaven knows, there was excuse enough to pick a quarrel since Louise Lawton often turned from one of them to dance with him.
Louise was a queer girl: pretty of course, or there wouldn't have been anything to quarrel over. But she was different from the other girls. Perhaps not prettier, for beauty is a matter of taste; but she seemed to understand men better—that is, she perhaps better understood all of them excepting her own brother, and everybody but her knew that he was worse than no good, being a cheat, a coward, a liar, a kind of sickly weakling in body and soul.
He was weak rather than evil, which is a poor apology for a fellow who, even as he promised his sister not to gamble was wheedling money out of her for no other purpose; and who pulled with Doug Walsh—when everybody knew that Sheriff Clifford was keeping suspicious eyes on that desperado—and merely grinned nervously at the abuse Walsh piled on to him; and who had been caught stealing from a drunken man's pocket—there is no need to recite what all else. But to Louise he was her "brother," and that kept him from having his neck wrung a dozen times a month.
And she was under the delusion that he was her protector! That the reason men were more respectful to her was because she, alone of all the girls at the Tarantula, had a brother.
Louise was rather short, of irrepressible vitality and vivid. Her hair was black and her eyes blue, and she wore a short scarlet skirt, black silk stockings, tiny slippers with glittering brass buckles. Sometimes her low-necked waists were of black, sometimes of yellow, silk. The men did not paw her over, even when they had been drinking. She knew how to evade unwelcome caresses without giving offense. She knew how to keep men at arm's length even though the very exclusion heightened the desire for contact. As has been said, she understood men.
She detested Doug Walsh and continued to be friendly with José Juarez, though she knew that the Mexican was intensely in love with her and sometimes annoyed her with talk about marriage; but he was a wonderful dancer, always respectful, and had "something" about him—which was poise, though she probably had never heard the word—that she liked.
She suspected that Juarez was a half-breed, but he wore the picturesque Mexican dress; velvet trousers, sewn with silver buttons up the side, a jacket of black velvet trimmed with buttons and silver embroidery, and a white ruffled shirt. He also wore the small, made-to-order boots and large, decorated sombrero of the horseman though he seldom rode, and did not own a horse. When one stays up all night there is little inclination for the saddle the next day.
Louise had time and again asked José not to play cards with her brother. Louise did not know it, but Charles falsely attributed all of his losses at cards to the Mexican—though he did lose, and often all he had, every time he played with José, for the gambler knew from whence Charles got most of his money. A queer thing, too: José never seemed to have any luck if he sat in a game where Louise chanced to be playing—but she, she had to make a pocketbook of her skirt to carry home the winnings.
"Charley," Louise said after she had scooted off the dance-floor to evade Doug Walsh and found her brother across from the Mexican at a table in an alcove, "you promised you wouldn't play again!"
"Aw, I'm not playing. Just penny ante."
Charles was nervous. José had noticed it. He had noticed too that several times daring the evening Charles and Doug Walsh slipped into the shadows, and José, spying with, catlike, inscrutable eyes, surmised that the gunman was either trying to bully Charles into doing something, or to hold him to a promise that had already been forced out of him. Charles would promise almost anybody anything.
He himself had pulled Charles away from the bar where Thomas, a nester with a homestead about five miles out on the Lone Piñon Road, was foolishly buying drinks from a wad that represented a successful alfalfa crop—incidentally, while Mrs. Thomas sat with the dull patience of a work-worn woman, nursing a few-months-old baby, in a buckboard out in front and waited. José thought it better for Charles to be gambling mildly with him than brewing deviltry with Doug Walsh.
José had two and a half crosses cut on the handle of his gun. He had cut the half cross one night when Louise had slapped Doug Walsh's face and had then coolly stared down the bad man though both of his guns had leaped from their holsters.
The half of a cross had not been cut, however, until after José had said expectantly to Charles—
"The son of a skunk has insulted your sister."
Charles had concealed his fear and agitation under a pitiable attempt at unconcern.
"Aw, Doug didn't mean nothing. He's a good fellow. Lou is too touchy anyway."
Charles had averted his face as he said it. José had hard eyes to stare into.
But one good thing about Charles: he was not a trouble-maker, a tale-bearer. He never told Doug what the Mexican said, or any of the other insulting remarks that José let fall. Doug would have gone loco if he had known what José was saying of him even when Louise came up.
"Well, quit right now," she told her brother, who had tried to fend off her protest with the excuse of "penny ante." "And you tell Doug Walsh that if he isn't looking for trouble to keep his dirty hands off me. You have to make him stop that rough stuff, Charley——"
"Pardon me," José interrupted softly—his voice was ever smooth as velvet, almost musical, "but if you will permit, I shall take pleasure in speaking to him for you."
"Thanks, José," she answered, playfully tossing a rose petal toward him. "I've heard that before."
"But, señorita," José said, standing up resolutely.
"No, no. Sit down. Charley will tell him again. And José, promise me you won't play with Charley any more—tonight at least. He hasn't any money, anyway."
"No," Charles answered in an injured tone, "but you have. I'd have cleaned him tonight if I'd have had anything to bet. Gee, I'd bet a wad big as Thomas' on the hand 'fore this."
"I will promise," José said to her, and added with a smile, "that is, as long as I know he hasn't any money."
When Louise walked away Charles followed her. He was back in a few minutes and coaxing the gambler to play. But José refused. Others in plenty were playing poker.
"She'll spot me," Charles lamented, "about the second hand. Hey, you," he called to a cowboy, Jim of the Frying Pan outfit, "give me that lid and coat of yours and I'll sit with my back to the door."
Jim was one of those who liked Louise very much.
"I'll give you the coat," he said, for the evening was warm and he was ready to shed the unaccustomed garment anyway. "But not this J. B. It's new. Get José's rain tent. It'll hide you.'"
And José permitted Charles to take the sombrero, with its embroidery and silver band worth about thirty times as much as Jim's new Stetson; and Charles cast his own hat toward a corner and sitting down with his back to the dance-hall door, began to play.
An hour later Doug Walsh, who had looked all over the place for him, discovered Charles.
"Come on. We'll have to ride like ——. Whatchu tryin' to do? Hide out from me in that rig? Thomas' been gone quarter of an hour 'r more."
SOME time after midnight, fifteen or twenty minutes past, José cashed in at the game he was playing and started to go out on the dance-floor to find Louise; and he bumped into Charles.
"Where is my som——"
He got no further. Charles pushed back the hat—his own—that he was wearing as he excitedly flashed a fist-full of currency in the gambler's face.
"Come on. You know I got some money now. I owe you a trimmin'—'bout a dozen of 'em."
José shook his head thoughtfully.
"Don't be a piker."
José remembered the time Louise had sold her ring, a small diamond that Sheriff Clifford had bought for a watch charm—not because he wanted it, either; except that he thought Louise needed the money—and Charles had got that money and lost it in a game that José did not happen to sit in.
"All right," José said imperturbably, "we'll get off in a corner and have a little stud."
"That's me. I want to get some action for my money. I'll show you where to head in, too. Believe me."
As they passed by the bar, looking for an empty poker-room, Doug Walsh was uproariously calling everybody up to have a drink.
José heard him, but pretended not to, and walked on.
He did not hear what Doug Walsh said, for Walsh, who had been buying and drinking recklessly, had seen. It took all of the persuasion of Joe and Jim—called the Twins of the Frying-Pan—to induce Walsh to postpone the threats that he poured out against the blankety-blankety-blankety-blank greaser. Doug was in a fighting mood and looking for trouble.
One reason was that he knew he had almost everybody bluffed; another, that he had plenty of money, and the man with money, whether in the barroom or in the Wall Street bank, seems to think it his privilege to be insulting when in the least crossed. But he talked so much about what he was going to do, and how he was going to do it, to the B. B. B. B. greaser that he forgot what he was talking about and continued to buy drinks.
In the meantime José and young Lawton were playing stud. The gambler, who always appeared on the verge of being bored, and scarcely ever seemed to take much interest in the game, sat quietly watching the cards fall.
He never looked more than once at the card faced down, and then barely glimpsed the pip, and made his bets nonchalantly as the others fell face-upward.
Charles, who had a mania for gambling, peeped at the hole card, as though to assure himself that it hadn't changed spots, every time a new card was dealt.
Charles had., been getting some good hands, and was betting strong—as he always did. Once he had bluffed—or thought he had bluffed—José out when the Mexican had him beat in sight.
José had smiled slightly. It had been his deal. The next time that it was his deal Charles got an ace in the hole, and two more aces fell with the third card dealt. José had only a deuce and four in sight.
"I'll let you down easy to coax you along," Charles said, shoving in a small piece of silver. No man would—or at least should—stand for a heavy bet with a pair of aces against him when at most he could have nothing more than a pair of fours with only two cards more to be drawn.
"If I remember correctly," José said softly, "you stole a pot for me a few minutes ago. Now climb aboard this," and he pushed a few bills into the center of the table.
Charles, as anybody would have done, came back with a raise. José saw it, and dealt.
Charles got a ten-spot, and José paired the four.
"Three fours beat a pair of aces," José remarked.
Charles took another squint at the hole card, bet, was raised, raised again, and was met.
The last card gave Charles a three-spot; and José paired the deuce in sight.
"Of all the luck!" Charles muttered, taking another peep at his ace in the hole and trying to appear down-hearted. José bet—he not only bet, but he tapped Charles' pile; then flipped over the hole card and revealed the third deuce.
"You are the luckiest gre——"
But Charles did not finish. He had caught the glint in José's eyes.
"Señor," José said stiffly, "I was born north of the Rio Grande. I am an American."
Charles protested that he didn't mean anything, that he knew José was the best fellow in ten lands, and wound up by borrowing a few dollars from him.
As José sorted the bills he noticed one, almost half-gone. A twenty-dollar bill it was, that had been torn in the middle, or nearly in the middle, but he put it in with the rest, making a separate roll of the bills taken from Charles.
A few minutes later, a half-hour or so, Louise declared she had never played in such luck in her life. She too noticed the torn bill as she took the pot from José; and the others about the table marveled that this Mexican gambler, who made a fat living off the green-clothed tables, should have been trimmed by a girl that always showed it in her face when she had a good hand.
WHEN Mrs. Thomas staggered into the dance-hall, the babe in her arms, and weakly told her story there was cursing and clattering of feet, shouting among the men and hysterical, high-voiced horror and sympathy from the girls, and presently the furious beat of hoofs as Sheriff Clifford and the cowboys dashed away in the night to the scene of the murder.
"Me and Bill was ridin' along home," she said, the tears gushing afresh down along the dried stains on her dusty, thin face. "An' he was singin' loud 'cause he'd had a little too much 'fore we started, an' I was feedin' it again 'cause it had the colic somethin' awful an' had been cryin'; and then I heard somebody ridin' fast an' they shouted to Bill to stop. I thought I heard two hosses, but I didn't see nobody but one feller. Bill said 'Go to ——,' an' whipped up the hosses. Then they started shootin'. Bill was shootin' an' a-drivin' like mad.
"All of a sudden he jest says 'My Gawd!' an' throwed up both hands an' fell off, an' I knowed they'd got him. I tried to get the reins, but havin' it I missed 'em, and the hosses turned out an' upset the wagon, an' I thought I was killed. But I heard it cryin', an' it don't 'pear to be hurt none, jest scratched. Pore little thing! Its father—I—I—found Bill—an'—then—I jest had to git here—oh, God, what will I do?"
Louise had taken the baby. The sickly little tired thing had cried itself into exhaustion, and the side of its tender face and body was red and black from the fall. Some one brought a chair for the mother who was weeping on the shoulder of a kneeling girl—a girl whose shoulders were bare, and whose lips and cheeks were covered with paint—that held Mrs. Thomas' head and tried with phrases that came strangely in her hoarse, coarse voice to comfort the stricken woman.
In seconds rather than minutes the dance-hall was emptied of men. José, the bartender and Charles remained. José and the bartender had no horses; and Charles had been sent for a drink of water and continued to hold the glass after Mrs. Thomas had drunk from it.
At the bartender's suggestion Mrs. Thomas was taken into a room off the bar where he had a cot; and all the girls crowded in there, too, futilely and flutteringly trying to do something, while he got a little wine for her.
The baby began to cry, and Louise holding it tightly and tenderly to her breast left the room and walked up and down the dance-floor. The dance-hall was deserted except for José, who stood thoughtfully by a window staring out into the darkness, and for Charles who sat on a chair, still holding the glass, but with his head bent down on to his chest.
From somewhere Doug Walsh appeared. He had spent his last dollar some minutes before Mrs. Thomas came with her poignant story, but declaring that he knew where he could get plenty more money, he had gone out again and dug up a tin can that had had buried about three hours before. He had heard shouting and riding, and wondered at it; he was surprised to find the dance-hall empty, but though he had a suspicion as to what had happened he did not care. Nobody would suspect him. ——, no! It had been an inspiration on his part that had made him knock off that sombrero Charles had worn and leave it on the road. Doug was feeling fine. He swaggered up to Louise, pointed in jest an accusing finger at the babe, and asked—
Louise looked at him in angry amazement; it was not the insult to her—she was a dance-hall girl—but the utter brutality of jesting over a babe when the blood of its murdered father was scarcely cold.
"Well," Doug went on, gloating over his humor, "any time you want another——"
"Charley!" she cried. "You hear this dog!"
And she ran from the room.
Doug turned toward Charles and laughed insultingly. He laughed the louder when also he noticed José standing by young Lawton.
"Going to kill him?" José whispered softly, tensely.
A shudder perceptibly quivered through Charles' body.
"We must make her think you are a man—anyway," José said as he looked up toward the approaching Doug.
"Yes, I heard you, you —— greaser. I've had about enough out of you, and here's where——"
As the desperado broke off, he reached for his guns; he had gripped the handles while José's fingers were still softly tapping the buttons of his jacket; and then in one movement so swift as almost to elude observation, José's right hand flashed upward toward his left shoulder as the other hand pulled aside the serape—the shot was fired as Doug's guns swung clear of their holsters. But only one shot was fired, and Doug fell like a dropped stone with a black hole squarely in the center of his forehead.
"Here—you—quick," José had said to Charles, even as he had shot; and he pressed the boy's trembling fingers about the big white ivory handle of the revolver, and then leaped aside so that the scared-faced girls that rushed in were in time to see the revolver still smoking, even as Charles looked down at it in a kind of dull amazement.
But José, his fingers gently tapping the bright buttons of his jacket, stood some four feet away, his face emotionless, inscrutable as ever.
"Ask Louise why the boy borrowed my gun," José said to the bartender who shoved his way past the girls.
Every one knew that Charles was unarmed. But though they might wonder, and they did, they could not doubt their eyes: Charles had killed the gunman, and in a square fight, for Doug Walsh was facing him and had both guns out of their holsters. Louise hastily gave the baby to some one else and fell weeping in a mingling of horror and gratification about the neck of her bewildered brother.
WHEN Sheriff Clifford followed by an angry crowd came through the Tarantula doorway the first object that every one saw was the sombrero in his hand.
José raised his arms above his head; it was dangerous to hesitate or make a false move before that mob of angry faces.
"That shows it, the coward! Admits it! Greaser! Lynchin's too good!" and kindred remarks ran in whispers, undertones and shouts through the room.
"Señores—" José began.
"Shut up!" the sheriff said. "I'll do the talkin'. This—" shaking the sombrero—"was there. And some of the fellers say you had quite a wad on you tonight—bills. We know you always draw gold from the bank——"
"But let me—" José began again.
"You can't explain nothing," voices, menacing voices, called out.
At the word "bills," Louise reached under her skirts and removed the bulging object just below her garter. A few people crowded around her to see.
"Seňores," José said, though shouts and jeers came at him, "I have not worn the sombrero all evening. You remember—" he addressed Jim of the Frying-Pan outfit—"that I gave it to Charles and——"
Jim was an honest fellow. He believed the greaser was guilty, but he admitted that what he had said was true.
"I give it back," Charles muttered huskily.
In his hand was still the heavy, ivory-handled revolver of José's.
Right then Charles' word was unquestioned, unquestionable; for it had been rapidly spread among the returning posse that Charles in a fair fight had killed Doug Walsh, whose unattended body lay on a table in one of the poker-rooms.
"An' by all that's holy," shouted the bartender, plucking a half of a twenty-dollar bill from Louise's hand. "Here's the very bill Thomas tore t'night. Lit a cigaret with half of it, an' tried to git me to break the other half—this very bill! I wouldn't do it!"
"That settles it!" a voice cried, and the men nodded sternly one to another.
Then some one jerked Sheriff Clifford's gun from his holster, and Joe of the Frying-Pan put his own gun squarely into the sheriff's face, saying:
"Now, Sheriff, there ain't no man we-all respect more'n you, but there ain't goin' to be no 'law take its course' in this. We're going to hang this greaser to a sycamore down there'n the grove. Ain't that right, boys?"
Oaths, nods, and a few "That's rights" given in even, solemn voices made answer; the death sentence was thereby delivered. It was not a mob, it was a small band suddenly grown quiet, stern, in the awful dignity that comes over men when they pass death-judgment on a fellow-man.
In the hushed tenseness the impact of all eyes was on the face of José, and some hearts shamed the breasts they were in by beating the quicker in a kind of vagrant admiration for a man who could look back at them with cold steady gaze. His face was inscrutable; for all the fear revealed he might have been in a game watching a drunken man blurring against a pat hand. He turned his head, he spoke quietly, and Charles—with averted face—trembled as with ague when he heard José ask:
"Have you nothing to say, señor? You know they will not listen to me."
Charles did not answer.
Joe of the Frying-Pan took the rope that Jim had brought him, put a loop around José's neck, drew it snug but not tight, and without a word started out of the door. The men gave way, and fell into line behind the gambler who still held his hands above his head.
"You won't make no rumpus?" one of the two men detailed to watch Sheriff Clifford asked.
"I know it wouldn't do no good," the sheriff acknowledged, saying the only thing he would without admitting that he was glad the law was not to be permitted to take its course in punishing so dastardly a crime.
And they started out.
Faintly, faintly and plaintively from the room where it had been placed by its mother, the insistent, protesting cry of the baby floated into the dance-hall, and the grim faces of silent men were turned, listening, for a moment. Then they tramped out.
Some of the girls—not all, for many turned aside with tense lips and strained eyes—hastily grabbed shawls to envelop their heads, and followed.
"To think I used to like that greaser!" Louise said brokenly.
In the stillness of the room where there were only half-uttered whispers and soft footsteps among those that remained, who felt even then as if in the presence of the dying, the shrill, insistent, quick, frightened voice of the baby broke in convulsive screams.
Charles nervously flung his hands to his ears.
Louise turned to hurry to the poor little thing, so insistent in its tiny rage.
"Lou?" Charles said weakly, almost inquiringly.
"What is it, boy?"
She started again.
"Lou—where'd they carry Doug to?"
"I don't know. The barkeep got somebody to take it away. I've got to stop that baby. Oh Lord, this is awful!"
Again she started, and again he called, fearful of letting her get out of his sight.
"What is it?" she asked impatiently.
"Lou, I've just got to talk—I can't—I can't—" and his voice went into a sob.
"Come on, boy," she said tenderly, putting an arm around him. "I know, you're all knocked out—it's an awful night—and it isn't morning yet."
They had no sooner reached the room where Mrs. Thomas, unconscious, lay moaning, than the baby, worn out, utterly exhausted, fell for a moment into unresting sleep.
"Oh God, what made it do that!" Charles exclaimed quickly as an instant later the baby opened its large, dark-blue eyes and stared for countable seconds straight at him with all the weird, majestic wisdom of infancy in its gaze.
"Oh, Lou—oh, Lou," he cried, catching hold of her, "don't let 'em hang José! He didn't do it. Lou, he didn't! Doug made me go with him. I didn't want to go. Honest to God, Lou—Doug did it!"
Louise did not say anything: she gasped in one long horrified breath as she stared bewildered, unbelieving, at her brother's distorted, fear-gripped face.
"José killed Doug—I didn't do it—he shoved the gun into my hand. He didn't know Doug did it—Thomas, I mean. I didn't want to go. I never give José back his hat and Doug knocked it off out there. Don't let 'em hang him, Lou. You won't, will you, let 'em hang him?"
"But the barkeep—"
"He won it off me—José did. I don't know how much Doug got. He said I hadn't done my share. That shows I'm innocent, Lou. Don't you see it does? I didn't do nothin' but go with him. I didn't even have a gun. José shot Doug for what he said to you and shoved the gun in my hand—said you must think I was a—was a man!"
Louise gripped his shoulders with both her hands.
Her voice called his name but it was her wide-staring eyes that implored him to deny it, to say it was not true; but he only slumped into a chair and sobbed as he nodded his head to affirm all that he had confessed.
And through it all the baby slept restively, but without crying.
A HORSE stood at the hitching rack. The bridle reins trailed on the ground, but it was tied with a hackamore. Doug Walsh, when he tied it there, had made one of those curious slip-knots which, when the end is pulled straight out, come undone with a jerk, but if the end is pulled back through the loop and jerked it tightens and is likely not to come untied without time and patience.
Fumbling in the darkness Louise tightened the knot. She tried to take off the hackamore from the horse's head, but in an idle moment Doug had spliced it so that it fitted snugly in one piece. There was no other horse at the rack. Charles had "borrowed" one when he rode with Doug, and they had all been ridden down to the grove which was a mile and a little more away.
Louise gasped and cried as she tugged at the rope. Seconds were speeding away like frantic runners in single file: any second might snatch at José's life and carry it on. She ran back and into the dance-hall and cried hysterically for some one to give her a knife.
The girls looked helplessly one from another, then some one mentioned the knife behind the bar used to cut lemons.
As Louise dashed for it she met the bartender coming out of one of the poker rooms. He held a handful of bills in front of him.
"Whatchu know about this?" he called at her. "Found 'em on the floor in there—must 've fell out of his——"
Louise gave a glance toward the doorway: a dead man with a handkerchief thrown over his face lay on the table.
She did not stay to listen or explain, but snatched the knife and ran, leaped from the door, cut the rope with one stroke of the sharp steel, climbed into the saddle and rode as though fleeing from terror.
The night was black, but she knew the way.
As she came in sight of the grove she saw a fire, a small fire built to light up the "Rustlers' Roost," as the old limb was called where many a horse and maverick-thief had been stretched by the neck, and she could see the black shadows of men moving back and forth.
She cried out, but she might as well have tossed her voice to a gale.
Beating the sharp heels of her dancing slippers against the flanks of the horse and slapping him with ends of the reins, she dashed on. Once to bring a burst of speed she pricked him with the point of the knife, and he gave such a bound as nearly to unseat her.
And as she rode she saw one of the shadows between her and the fire slowly being raised from the ground.
It was José.
Again she cried. The distance was less than before, and her voice was one shrill shriek that rose like a banshee wail in the still night. She had been heard.
A few moments later horse and rider plunged through the circle about the fire, and as a score of hands reached for her—reached out to catch and stop her—she rose in the stirrups and with a savagecut the rope, and the body of the gambler fell heavily to the ground.
The next instant she had thrown herself from the saddle and was pulling at the tight noose about his neck as she flung incoherent words at the stern, tense faces that were closing in, angry at this interference with their grim justice.
Her brother's name, Doug Walsh's name, José's name, and the name of Thomas, were jumbled confusedly in the frantic words she shouted; but slowly those who heard understood, and looked from one to another, wondering, unbelieving, awed.
Then Sheriff Clifford spoke.
"Now boys, it's as hard for me to believe this as it is for you. But maybe we've all made a mistake. Maybe we'd better talk it over an' see if there was any time tonight when this grea— I mean this fellow here was away from the dance-hall. We all know Louise wouldn't accuse that brother o' hers unless——"
Louise cried out, her voice choking with anguish and with that larger, inarticulate horror that binds the throat in the presence of one who has been greatly wronged—and is dead!