The intruder in his sanctum was his foreman. He was also acting as pressman, as might be seen from his shirt-sleeves spattered with ink, rolled up over the arm that had just been working “the Archimedian lever that moves the world,” which was the editor’s favorite allusion to the hand-press that strict economy obliged the “Clarion” to use. His braces, slipped from his shoulders during his work, were looped negligently on either side, their functions being replaced by one hand, which occasionally hitched up his trousers to a securer position. A pair of down-at-heel slippers—dear to the country printer—completed his negligee.
But the editor knew that the ink-spattered arm was sinewy and ready, that a stout and loyal heart beat under the soiled shirt, and that the slipshod slippers did not prevent its owner’s foot from being “put down” very firmly on occasion. He accordingly met the shrewd, good-humored blue eyes of his faithful henchman with an interrogating smile.
“I won’t keep you long,” said the foreman, glancing at the editor’s copy with his habitual half humorous toleration of that work, it being his general conviction that news and advertisements were the only valuable features of a newspaper; “I only wanted to talk to you a minute about makin’ suthin more o’ this yer accident to Colonel Starbottle.”
“Well, we’ve a full report of it in, haven’t we?” said the editor wonderingly. “I have even made an editorial para. about the frequency of these accidents, and called attention to the danger of riding those half broken Spanish mustangs.”
“Yes, ye did that,” said the foreman tolerantly; “but ye see, thar’s some folks around here that allow it warn’t no accident. There’s a heap of them believe that no runaway hoss ever mauled the colonel ez he got mauled.”
“But I heard it from the colonel’s own lips,” said the editor, “and he surely ought to know.”
“He mout know and he moutn’t, and if he did know, he wouldn’t tell,” said the foreman musingly, rubbing his chin with the cleaner side of his arm. “Ye didn’t see him when he was picked up, did ye?”
“No,” said the editor. “Only after the doctor had attended him. Why?”
“Jake Parmlee, ez picked him up outer the ditch, says that he was half choked, and his black silk neck-handkercher was pulled tight around his throat. There was a mark on his nose ez ef some one had tried to gouge out his eye, and his left ear was chawed ez ef he’d bin down in a reg’lar rough-and-tumble clinch.”
“He told me his horse bolted, buck-jumped, threw him, and he lost consciousness,” said the editor positively. “He had no reason for lying, and a man like Starbottle, who carries a Derringer and is a dead shot, would have left his mark on somebody if he’d been attacked.”
“That’s what the boys say is just the reason why he lied. He was took suddent, don’t ye see,—he’d no show—and don’t like to confess it. See? A man like him ain’t goin’ to advertise that he kin be tackled and left senseless and no one else got hurt by it! His political influence would be ruined here!”
The editor was momentarily staggered at this large truth.
“Nonsense!” he said, with a laugh. “Who would attack Colonel Starbottle in that fashion? He might have been shot on sight by some political enemy with whom he had quarreled—but not beaten.”
“S’pose it warn’t no political enemy?” said the foreman doggedly.
“Then who else could it be?” demanded the editor impatiently.
“That’s jest for the press to find out and expose,” returned the foreman, with a significant glance at the editor’s desk. “I reckon that’s whar the ‘Clarion’ ought to come in.”
“In a matter of this kind,” said the editor promptly, “the paper has no business to interfere with a man’s statement. The colonel has a perfect right to his own secret—if there is one, which I very much doubt. But,” he added, in laughing recognition of the half reproachful, half humorous discontent on the foreman’s face, “what dreadful theory have you and the boys got about it—and what do you expect to expose?”
“Well,” said the foreman very seriously, “it’s jest this: You see, the colonel is mighty sweet on that Spanish woman Ramierez up on the hill yonder. It was her mustang he was ridin’ when the row happened near her house.”
“Well?” said the editor, with disconcerting placidity.
“Well,”—hesitated the foreman, “you see, they’re a bad lot, those Greasers, especially the Ramierez, her husband.”
The editor knew that the foreman was only echoing the provincial prejudice against this race, which he himself had always combated. Ramierez kept a fonda or hostelry on a small estate,—the last of many leagues formerly owned by the Spanish grantee, his landlord,—and had a wife of some small coquetries and redundant charms. Gambling took place at the fonda, and it was said the common prejudice against the Mexican did not, however, prevent the American from trying to win his money.
“Then you think Ramierez was jealous of the colonel? But in that case he would have knifed him,—Spanish fashion,—and not without a struggle.”
“There’s more ways they have o’ killin’ a man than that; he might hev been dragged off his horse by a lasso and choked,” said the foreman darkly.
The editor had heard of this vaquero method of putting an enemy hors de combat; but it was a clumsy performance for the public road, and the brutality of its manner would have justified the colonel in exposing it.
The foreman saw the incredulity expressed in his face, and said somewhat aggressively, “Of course I know ye don’t take no stock in what’s said agin the Greasers, and that’s what the boys know, and what they said, and that’s the reason why I thought I oughter tell ye, so that ye mightn’t seem to be always favorin’ ’em.”
The editor’s face darkened slightly, but he kept his temper and his good humor. “So that to prove that the ‘Clarion’ is unbiased where the Mexicans are concerned, I ought to make it their only accuser, and cast a doubt on the American’s veracity?” he said, with a smile.
“I don’t mean that,” said the foreman, reddening. “Only I thought ye might—as ye understand these folks’ ways—ye might be able to get at them easy, and mebbe make some copy outer the blamed thing. It would just make a stir here, and be a big boom for the ‘Clarion.’”
“I’ve no doubt it would,” said the editor dryly. “However, I’ll make some inquiries; but you might as well let ‘the boys’ know that the ‘Clarion’ will not publish the colonel’s secret without his permission. Meanwhile,” he continued, smiling, “if you are very anxious to add the functions of a reporter to your other duties and bring me any discoveries you may make, I’ll—look over your copy.”
He good humoredly nodded, and took up his pen again,—a hint at which the embarrassed foreman, under cover of hitching up his trousers, awkwardly and reluctantly withdrew.
It was with some natural youthful curiosity, but no lack of loyalty to Colonel Starbottle, that the editor that evening sought this “war-horse of the Democracy,” as he was familiarly known, in his invalid chamber at the Palmetto Hotel. He found the hero with a bandaged ear and—perhaps it was fancy suggested by the story of the choking—cheeks more than usually suffused and apoplectic. Nevertheless, he was seated by the table with a mint julep before him, and welcomed the editor by instantly ordering another.
The editor was glad to find him so much better.
“Gad, sir, no bones broken, but a good deal of ’possum scratching about the head for such a little throw like that. I must have slid a yard or two on my left ear before I brought up.”
“You were unconscious from the fall, I believe.”
“Only for an instant, sir—a single instant! I recovered myself with the assistance of a No’the’n gentleman—a Mr. Parmlee—who was passing.”
“Then you think your injuries were entirely due to your fall?”
The colonel paused with the mint julep halfway to his lips, and set it down. “Sir!” he ejaculated, with astounded indignation.
“You say you were unconscious,” returned the editor lightly, “and some of your friends think the injuries inconsistent with what you believe to be the cause. They are concerned lest you were unknowingly the victim of some foul play.”
“Unknowingly! Sir! Do you take me for a chuckle-headed niggah, that I don’t know when I’m thrown from a buck-jumping mustang? or do they think I’m a Chinaman to be hustled and beaten by a gang of bullies? Do they know, sir, that the account I have given I am responsible for, sir?—personally responsible?”
There was no doubt to the editor that the colonel was perfectly serious, and that the indignation arose from no guilty consciousness of a secret. A man as peppery as the colonel would have been equally alert in defense.
“They feared that you might have been ill used by some evilly disposed person during your unconsciousness,” explained the editor diplomatically; “but as you say that was only for a moment, and that you were aware of everything that happened”—He paused.
“Perfectly, sir! Perfectly! As plain as I see this julep before me. I had just left the Ramierez rancho. The senora,—a devilish pretty woman, sir,—after a little playful badinage, had offered to lend me her daughter’s mustang if I could ride it home. You know what it is, Mr. Grey,” he said gallantly. “I’m an older man than you, sir, but a challenge from a d——d fascinating creature, I trust, sir, I am not yet old enough to decline. Gad, sir, I mounted the brute. I’ve ridden Morgan stock and Blue Grass thoroughbreds bareback, sir, but I’ve never thrown my leg over such a blanked Chinese cracker before. After he bolted I held my own fairly, but he buck-jumped before I could lock my spurs under him, and the second jump landed me!”
“How far from the Ramierez fonda were you when you were thrown?”
“A matter of four or five hundred yards, sir.”
“Then your accident might have been seen from the fonda?”
“Scarcely, sir. For in that case, I may say, without vanity, that—er—the—er senora would have come to my assistance.”
“But not her husband?”
The old-fashioned shirt-frill which the colonel habitually wore grew erectile with a swelling indignation, possibly half assumed to conceal a certain conscious satisfaction beneath. “Mr. Grey,” he said, with pained severity, “as a personal friend of mine, and a representative of the press,—a power which I respect,—I overlook a disparaging reflection upon a lady, which I can only attribute to the levity of youth and thoughtlessness. At the same time, sir,” he added, with illogical sequence, “if Ramierez felt aggrieved at my attentions, he knew where I could be found, sir, and that it was not my habit to decline giving gentlemen—of any nationality—satisfaction—sir!—personal satisfaction.”
He paused, and then added, with a singular blending of anxiety and a certain natural dignity, “I trust, sir, that nothing of this—er—kind will appear in your paper.”
“It was to keep it out by learning the truth from you, my dear colonel,” said the editor lightly, “that I called to-day. Why, it was even suggested,” he added, with a laugh, “that you were half strangled by a lasso.”
To his surprise the colonel did not join in the laugh, but brought his hand to his loose cravat with an uneasy gesture and a somewhat disturbed face.
“I admit, sir,” he said, with a forced smile, “that I experienced a certain sensation of choking, and I may have mentioned it to Mr. Parmlee; but it was due, I believe, sir, to my cravat, which I always wear loosely, as you perceive, becoming twisted in my fall, and in rolling over.”
He extended his fat white hand to the editor, who shook it cordially, and then withdrew. Nevertheless, although perfectly satisfied with his mission, and firmly resolved to prevent any further discussion on the subject, Mr. Grey’s curiosity was not wholly appeased. What were the relations of the colonel with the Ramierez family? From what he himself had said, the theory of the foreman as to the motives of the attack might have been possible, and the assault itself committed while the colonel was unconscious.
Mr. Grey, however, kept this to himself, briefly told his foreman that he found no reason to add to the account already in type, and dismissed the subject from his mind. The colonel left the town the next day.
One morning a week afterward, the foreman entered the sanctum cautiously, and, closing the door of the composing-room behind him, stood for a moment before the editor with a singular combination of irresolution, shamefacedness, and humorous discomfiture in his face.
Answering the editor’s look of inquiry, he began slowly, “Mebbe ye remember when we was talkin’ last week o’ Colonel Starbottle’s accident, I sorter allowed that he knew all the time why he was attacked that way, only he wouldn’t tell.”
“Yes, I remember you were incredulous,” said the editor, smiling.
“Well, I take it all back! I reckon he told all he knew. I was wrong! I cave!”
“Why?” asked the editor wonderingly.
“Well, I have been through the mill myself!”
He unbuttoned his shirt collar, pointed to his neck, which showed a slight abrasion and a small livid mark of strangulation at the throat, and added, with a grim smile, “And I’ve got about as much proof as I want.”
The editor put down his pen and stared at him.
“You see, Mr. Grey, it was partly your fault! When you bedeviled me about gettin’ that news, and allowed I might try my hand at reportin’, I was fool enough to take up the challenge. So once or twice, when I was off duty here, I hung around the Ramierez shanty. Once I went in thar when they were gamblin’; thar war one or two Americans thar that war winnin’ as far as I could see, and was pretty full o’ that aguardiente that they sell thar—that kills at forty rods. You see, I had a kind o’ suspicion that ef thar was any foul play goin’ on it might be worked on these fellers arter they were drunk, and war goin’ home with thar winnin’s.”
“So you gave up your theory of the colonel being attacked from jealousy?” said the editor, smiling.
“Hol’ on! I ain’t through yet! I only reckoned that ef thar was a gang of roughs kept thar on the premises they might be used for that purpose, and I only wanted to ketch em at thar work. So I jest meandered into the road when they war about comin’ out, and kept my eye skinned for what might happen. Thar was a kind o’ corral about a hundred yards down the road, half adobe wall, and a stockade o’ palm’s on top of it, about six feet high. Some of the palm’s were off, and I peeped through, but thar warn’t nobody thar. I stood thar, alongside the bank, leanin’ my back agin one o’ them openin’s, and jest watched and waited.
“All of a suddent I felt myself grabbed by my coat collar behind, and my neck-handkercher and collar drawn tight around my throat till I couldn’t breathe. The more I twisted round, the tighter the clinch seemed to get. I couldn’t holler nor speak, but thar I stood with my mouth open, pinned back agin that cursed stockade, and my arms and legs movin’ up and down, like one o’ them dancin’ jacks! It seems funny, Mr. Grey—I reckon I looked like a darned fool—but I don’t wanter feel ag’in as I did jest then. The clinch o’ my throat got tighter; everything got black about me; I was jest goin’ off and kalkilatin’ it was about time for you to advertise for another foreman, when suthin broke—fetched away!
“It was my collar button, and I dropped like a shot. It was a minute before I could get my breath ag’in, and when I did and managed to climb that darned stockade, and drop on the other side, thar warn’t a soul to be seen! A few hosses that stampeded in my gettin’ over the fence war all that was there! I was mighty shook up, you bet!—and to make the hull thing perfectly ridic’lous, when I got back to the road, after all I’d got through, darn my skin, ef thar warn’t that pesky lot o’ drunken men staggerin’ along, jinglin’ the scads they had won, and enjoyin’ themselves, and nobody a-followin’ ’em! I jined ’em jest for kempany’s sake, till we got back to town, but nothin’ happened.”
“But, my dear Richards,” said the editor warmly, “this is no longer a matter of mere reporting, but of business for the police. You must see the deputy sheriff at once, and bring your complaint—or shall I? It’s no joking matter.”
“Hol’ on, Mr. Grey,” replied Richards slowly. “I’ve told this to nobody but you—nor am I goin’ to—sabe? It’s an affair of my own—and I reckon I kin take care of it without goin’ to the Revised Statutes of the State of California, or callin’ out the sheriff’s posse.”
His humorous blue eyes just then had certain steely points in them like glittering facets as he turned them away, which the editor had seen before on momentous occasions, and he was speaking slowly and composedly, which the editor also knew boded no good to an adversary.
“Don’t be a fool, Richards,” he said quietly. “Don’t take as a personal affront what was a common, vulgar crime. You would undoubtedly have been robbed by that rascal had not the others come along.”
Richards shook his head. “I might hev bin robbed a dozen times afore they came along—ef that was the little game. No, Mr. Grey,—it warn’t no robbery.”
“Had you been paying court to the Senora Ramierez, like Colonel Starbottle?” asked the editor, with a smile.
“Not much,” returned Richards scornfully; “she ain’t my style. But”—he hesitated, and then added, “thar was a mighty purty gal thar—and her darter, I reckon—a reg’lar pink fairy! She kem in only a minute, and they sorter hustled her out ag’in—for darn my skin ef she didn’t look as much out o’ place in that smoky old garlic-smellin’ room as an angel at a bull-fight. And what got me—she was ez white ez you or me, with blue eyes, and a lot o’ dark reddish hair in a long braid down her back. Why, only for her purty sing-song voice and her ‘Gracias, senor,’ you’d hev reckoned she was a Blue Grass girl jest fresh from across the plains.”
A little amused at his foreman’s enthusiasm, Mr. Grey gave an ostentatious whistle and said, “Come, now, Richards, look here! Really!”
“Only a little girl—a mere child, Mr. Grey—not more’n fourteen if a day,” responded Richards, in embarrassed depreciation.
“Yes, but those people marry at twelve,” said the editor, with a laugh. “Look out! Your appreciation may have been noticed by some other admirer.”
He half regretted this speech the next moment in the quick flush—the male instinct of rivalry—that brought back the glitter of Richards’s eyes. “I reckon I kin take care of that, sir,” he said slowly, “and I kalkilate that the next time I meet that chap—whoever he may be—he won’t see so much of my back as he did.”
The editor knew there was little doubt of this, and for an instant believed it his duty to put the matter in the hands of the police. Richards was too good and brave a man to be risked in a bar-room fight. But reflecting that this might precipitate the scandal he wished to avoid, he concluded to make some personal investigation. A stronger curiosity than he had felt before was possessing him. It was singular, too, that Richards’s description of the girl was that of a different and superior type—the hidalgo, or fair-skinned Spanish settler. If this was true, what was she doing there—and what were her relations to the Ramierez?
The next afternoon he went to the fonda. Situated on the outskirts of the town which had long outgrown it, it still bore traces of its former importance as a hacienda, or smaller farm, of one of the old Spanish landholders. The patio, or central courtyard, still existed as a stable-yard for carts, and even one or two horses were tethered to the railings of the inner corridor, which now served as an open veranda to the fonda or inn. The opposite wing was utilized as a tienda, or general shop,—a magazine for such goods as were used by the Mexican inhabitants,—and belonged also to Ramierez.
Ramierez himself—round-whiskered and Sancho Panza-like in build—welcomed the editor with fat, perfunctory urbanity. The fonda and all it contained was at his disposicion.
The senora coquettishly bewailed, in rising and falling inflections, his long absence, his infidelity and general perfidiousness. Truly he was growing great in writing of the affairs of his nation—he could no longer see his humble friends! Yet not long ago—truly that very week—there was the head impresor of Don Pancho’s imprenta himself who had been there!
A great man, of a certainty, and they must take what they could get! They were only poor innkeepers; when the governor came not they must welcome the alcalde. To which the editor—otherwise Don Pancho—replied with equal effusion. He had indeed recommended the fonda to his impresor, who was but a courier before him. But what was this? The impresor had been ravished at the sight of a beautiful girl—a mere muchacha—yet of a beauty that deprived the senses—this angel—clearly the daughter of his friend! Here was the old miracle of the orange in full fruition and the lovely fragrant blossom all on the same tree—at the fonda. And this had been kept from him!
“Yes, it was but a thing of yesterday,” said the senora, obviously pleased. “The muchacha—for she was but that—had just returned from the convent at San Jose, where she had been for four years. Ah! what would you? The fonda was no place for the child, who should know only the litany of the Virgin—and they had kept her there. And now—that she was home again—she cared only for the horse. From morning to night! Caballeros might come and go! There might be a festival—all the same to her, it made nothing if she had the horse to ride! Even now she was with one in the fields. Would Don Pancho attend and see Cota and her horse?”
The editor smilingly assented, and accompanied his hostess along the corridor to a few steps which brought them to the level of the open meadows of the old farm inclosure. A slight white figure on horseback was careering in the distance. At a signal from Senora Ramierez it wheeled and came down rapidly towards them. But when within a hundred yards the horse was suddenly pulled up vaquero fashion, and the little figure leaped off and advanced toward them on foot, leading the horse.
To his surprise, Mr. Grey saw that she had been riding bareback, and from her discreet halt at that distance he half suspected astride! His effusive compliments to the mother on this exhibition of skill were sincere, for he was struck by the girl’s fearlessness. But when both horse and rider at last stood before him, he was speechless and embarrassed.
For Richards had not exaggerated the girl’s charms. She was indeed dangerously pretty, from her tawny little head to her small feet, and her figure, although comparatively diminutive, was perfectly proportioned. Gray eyed and blonde as she was in color, her racial peculiarities were distinct, and only the good-humored and enthusiastic Richards could have likened her to an American girl.
But he was the more astonished in noticing that her mustang was as distinct and peculiar as herself—a mongrel mare of the extraordinary type known as a “pinto,” or “calico” horse, mottled in lavender and pink, Arabian in proportions, and half broken! Her greenish gray eyes, in which too much of the white was visible, had, he fancied, a singular similarity of expression to Cota’s own!
Utterly confounded, and staring at the girl in her white, many flounced frock, bare head, and tawny braids, as she stood beside this incarnation of equine barbarism, Grey could remember nothing like it outside of a circus.
He stammered a few words of admiration of the mare. Miss Cota threw out her two arms with a graceful gesture and a profound curtsey, and said—
“A la disposicion de le Usted, senor.”
Grey was quick to understand the malicious mischief which underlay this formal curtsey and danced in the girl’s eyes, and even fancied it shared by the animal itself. But he was a singularly good rider of untrained stock, and rather proud of his prowess. He bowed.
“I accept that I may have the honor of laying the senorita’s gift again at her little feet.”
But here the burly Ramierez intervened. “Ah, Mother of God! May the devil fly away with all this nonsense! I will have no more of it,” he said impatiently to the girl. “Have a care, Don Pancho,” he turned to the editor; “it is a trick!”
“One I think I know,” said Grey sapiently. The girl looked at him curiously as he managed to edge between her and the mustang, under the pretense of stroking its glossy neck. “I shall keep my own spurs,” he said to her in a lower voice, pointing to the sharp, small-roweled American spurs he wore, instead of the large, blunt, five-pointed star of the Mexican pattern.
The girl evidently did not understand him then—though she did a moment later! For without attempting to catch hold of the mustang’s mane, Grey in a single leap threw himself across its back. The animal, utterly unprepared, was at first stupefied. But by this time her rider had his seat. He felt her sensitive spine arch like a cat’s beneath him as she sprang rocket-wise into the air.
But here she was mistaken! Instead of clinging tightly to her flanks with the inner side of his calves, after the old vaquero fashion to which she was accustomed, he dropped his spurred heels into her sides and allowed his body to rise with her spring, and the cruel spur to cut its track upward from her belly almost to her back.
She dropped like a shot, he dexterously withdrawing his spurs, and regaining his seat, jarred but not discomfited. Again she essayed a leap; the spurs again marked its height in a scarifying track along her smooth barrel. She tried a third leap, but this time dropped halfway as she felt the steel scraping her side, and then stood still, trembling. Grey leaped off!
There was a sound of applause from the innkeeper and his wife, assisted by a lounging vaquero in the corridor. Ashamed of his victory, Grey turned apologetically to Cota. To his surprise she glanced indifferently at the trickling sides of her favorite, and only regarded him curiously.
“Ah,” she said, drawing in her breath, “you are strong—and you comprehend!”
“It was only a trick for a trick, senorita,” he replied, reddening; “let me look after those scratches in the stable,” he added, as she was turning away, leading the agitated and excited animal toward a shed in the rear.
He would have taken the riata which she was still holding, but she motioned him to precede her. He did so by a few feet, but he had scarcely reached the stable door before she suddenly caught him roughly by the shoulders, and, shoving him into the entrance, slammed the door upon him.
Amazed and a little indignant, he turned in time to hear a slight sound of scuffling outside, and to see Cota re-enter with a flushed face.
“Pardon, senor,” she said quickly, “but I feared she might have kicked you. Rest tranquil, however, for the servant he has taken her away.”
She pointed to a slouching peon with a malevolent face, who was angrily driving the mustang toward the corral.
“Consider it no more! I was rude! Santa Maria! I almost threw you, too; but,” she added, with a dazzling smile, “you must not punish me as you have her! For you are very strong—and you comprehend.”
But Grey did not comprehend, and with a few hurried apologies he managed to escape his fair but uncanny tormentor. Besides, this unlooked-for incident had driven from his mind the more important object of his visit,—the discovery of the assailants of Richards and Colonel Starbottle.
His inquiries of the Ramierez produced no result. Senor Ramierez was not aware of any suspicious loiterers among the frequenters of the fonda, and except from some drunken American or Irish revelers he had been free of disturbance.
Ah! the peon—an old vaquero—was not an angel, truly, but he was dangerous only to the bull and the wild horses—and he was afraid even of Cota! Mr. Grey was fain to ride home empty of information.
He was still more concerned a week later, on returning unexpectedly one afternoon to his sanctum, to hear a musical, childish voice in the composing-room.
It was Cota! She was there, as Richards explained, on his invitation, to view the marvels and mysteries of printing at a time when they would not be likely to “disturb Mr. Grey at his work.” But the beaming face of Richards and the simple tenderness of his blue eyes plainly revealed the sudden growth of an evidently sincere passion, and the unwonted splendors of his best clothes showed how carefully he had prepared for the occasion.
Grey was worried and perplexed, believing the girl a malicious flirt. Yet nothing could be more captivating than her simple and childish curiosity, as she watched Richards swing the lever of the press, or stood by his side as he marshaled the type into files on his “composing-stick.” He had even printed a card with her name, “Senorita Cota Ramierez,” the type of which had been set up, to the accompaniment of ripples of musical laughter, by her little brown fingers.
The editor might have become quite sentimental and poetical had he not noticed that the gray eyes which often rested tentatively and meaningly on himself, even while apparently listening to Richards, were more than ever like the eyes of the mustang on whose scarred flanks her glance had wandered so coldly.
He withdrew presently so as not to interrupt his foreman’s innocent tête-à-tête, but it was not very long after that Cota passed him on the highroad with the pinto horse in a gallop, and blew him an audacious kiss from the tips of her fingers.
For several days afterwards Richards’s manner was tinged with a certain reserve on the subject of Cota which the editor attributed to the delicacy of a serious affection, but he was surprised also to find that his foreman’s eagerness to discuss his unknown assailant had somewhat abated. Further discussion regarding it naturally dropped, and the editor was beginning to lose his curiosity when it was suddenly awakened by a chance incident.
An intimate friend and old companion of his—one Enriquez Saltillo—had diverged from a mountain trip especially to call upon him. Enriquez was a scion of one of the oldest Spanish-California families, and in addition to his friendship for the editor it pleased him also to affect an intense admiration of American ways and habits, and even to combine the current California slang with his native precision of speech—and a certain ironical levity still more his own.
It seemed, therefore, quite natural to Mr. Grey to find him seated with his feet on the editorial desk, his hat cocked on the back of his head, reading the “Clarion” exchanges. But he was up in a moment, and had embraced Grey with characteristic effusion.
“I find myself, my leetle brother, but an hour ago two leagues from this spot! I say to myself, ‘Hola! It is the home of Don Pancho—my friend! I shall find him composing the magnificent editorial leader, collecting the subscription of the big pumpkin and the great gooseberry, or gouging out the eye of the rival editor, at which I shall assist!’ I hesitate no longer; I fly on the instant, and I am here.”
Grey was delighted. Saltillo knew the Spanish population thoroughly—his own superior race and their Mexican and Indian allies. If any one could solve the mystery of the Ramierez fonda, and discover Richards’s unknown assailant, it was he! But Grey contented himself, at first, with a few brief inquiries concerning the beautiful Cota and her anonymous association with the Ramierez. Enriquez was as briefly communicative.
“Of your suspicions, my leetle brother, you are right—on the half! That leetle angel of a Cota is, without doubt, the daughter of the adorable Senora Ramierez, but not of the admirable senor—her husband. Ah! what would you? We are a simple, patriarchal race; thees Ramierez, he was the Mexican tenant of the old Spanish landlord—such as my father—and we are ever the fathers of the poor, and sometimes of their children. It is possible, therefore, that the exquisite Cota resemble the Spanish landlord. Ah! stop—remain tranquil! I remember,” he went on, suddenly striking his forehead with a dramatic gesture, “the old owner of thees ranch was my cousin Tiburcio. Of a consequence, my friend, thees angel is my second cousin! Behold! I shall call there on the instant. I shall embrace my long-lost relation. I shall introduce my best friend, Don Pancho, who lofe her. I shall say, ‘Bless you, my children,’ and it is feenish! I go! I am gone even now!”
He started up and clapped on his hat, but Grey caught him by the arm.
“For Heaven’s sake, Enriquez, be serious for once,” he said, forcing him back into the chair. “And don’t speak so loud. The foreman in the other room is an enthusiastic admirer of the girl. In fact, it is on his account that I am making these inquiries.”
“Ah, the gentleman of the pantuflos, whose trousers will not remain! I have seen him, friend. Truly he has the ambition excessif to arrive from the bed to go to the work without the dress or the wash. But,” in recognition of Grey’s half serious impatience, “remain tranquil. On him I shall not go back! I have said! The friend of my friend is ever the same as my friend! He is truly not seducing to the eye, but without doubt he will arrive a governor or a senator in good time. I shall gif to him my second cousin. It is feenish! I will tell him now!”
He attempted to rise, but was held down and vigorously shaken by Grey.
“I’ve half a mind to let you do it, and get chucked through the window for your pains,” said the editor, with a half laugh. “Listen to me. This is a more serious matter than you suppose.”
And Grey briefly recounted the incident of the mysterious attacks on Starbottle and Richards. As he proceeded he noticed, however, that the ironical light died out of Enriquez’s eyes, and a singular thoughtfulness, yet unlike his usual precise gravity, came over his face. He twirled the ends of his penciled mustache—an unfailing sign of Enriquez’s emotion.
“The same accident that arrive to two men that shall be as opposite as the gallant Starbottle and the excellent Richards shall not prove that it come from Ramierez, though they both were at the fonda,” he said gravely. “The cause of it have not come to-day, nor yesterday, nor last week. The cause of it have arrive before there was any gallant Starbottle or excellent Richards; before there was any American in California—before you and I, my leetle brother, have lif! The cause happen first—two hundred years ago!”
The editor’s start of impatient incredulity was checked by the unmistakable sincerity of Enriquez’s face. “It is so,” he went on gravely; “it is an old story—it is a long story. I shall make him short—and new.”
He stopped and lit a cigarette without changing his odd expression.
“It was when the padres first have the mission, and take the heathen and convert him—and save his soul. It was their business, you comprehend, my Pancho? The more heathen they convert, the more soul they save, the better business for their mission shop. But the heathen do not always wish to be ‘convert;’ the heathen fly, the heathen skidaddle, the heathen will not remain, or will backslide. What will you do? So the holy fathers make a little game. You do not of a possibility comprehend how the holy fathers make a convert, my leetle brother?” he added gravely.
“No,” said the editor.
“I shall tell to you. They take from the presidio five or six dragons—you comprehend—the cavalry soldiers, and they pursue the heathen from his little hut. When they cannot surround him and he fly, they catch him with the lasso, like the wild hoss. The lasso catch him around the neck; he is obliged to remain. Sometime he is strangle. Sometime he is dead, but the soul is save! You believe not, Pancho? I see you wrinkle the brow—you flash the eye; you like it not? Believe me, I like it not, neither, but it is so!”
He shrugged his shoulders, threw away his half smoked cigarette, and went on.
“One time a padre who have the zeal excessif for the saving of soul, when he find the heathen, who is a young girl, have escape the soldiers, he of himself have seize the lasso and flung it! He is lucky; he catch her—but look you! She stop not—she still fly! She not only fly, but of a surety she drag the good padre with her! He cannot loose himself, for his riata is fast to the saddle; the dragons cannot help, for he is drag so fast. On the instant she have gone—and so have the padre. For why? It is not a young girl he have lasso, but the devil! You comprehend—it is a punishment—a retribution—he is feenish! And forever!
“For every year he must come back a spirit—on a spirit hoss—and swing the lasso, and make as if to catch the heathen. He is condemn ever to play his little game; now there is no heathen more to convert, he catch what he can. My grandfather have once seen him—it is night and a storm, and he pass by like a flash! My grandfather like it not—he is much dissatisfied! My uncle have seen him, too, but he make the sign of the cross, and the lasso have fall to the side, and my uncle have much gratification. A vaquero of my father and a peon of my cousin have both been picked up, lassoed, and dragged dead.
“Many peoples have died of him in the strangling. Sometime he is seen, sometime it is the woman only that one sees—sometime it is but the hoss. But ever somebody is dead—strangle! Of a truth, my friend, the gallant Starbottle and the ambitious Richards have just escaped!”
The editor looked curiously at his friend. There was not the slightest suggestion of mischief or irony in his tone or manner; nothing, indeed, but a sincerity and anxiety usually rare with his temperament. It struck him also that his speech had but little of the odd California slang which was always a part of his imitative levity. He was puzzled.
“Do you mean to say that this superstition is well known?” he asked, after a pause.
“Among my people—yes.”
“And do you believe in it?”
Enriquez was silent. Then he arose, and shrugged his shoulders. “Quien sabe? It is not more difficult to comprehend than your story.”
He gravely put on his hat. With it he seemed to have put on his old levity. “Come, behold, it is a long time between drinks! Let us to the hotel and the barkeep, who shall give up the smash of brandy and the julep of mints before the lasso of Friar Pedro shall prevent us the swallow! Let us skiddadle!”
Mr. Grey returned to the “Clarion” office in a much more satisfied condition of mind. Whatever faith he held in Enriquez’s sincerity, for the first time since the attack on Colonel Starbottle he believed he had found a really legitimate journalistic opportunity in the incident. The legend and its singular coincidence with the outrages would make capital “copy.”
No names would be mentioned, yet even if Colonel Starbottle recognized his own adventure, he could not possibly object to this interpretation of it. The editor had found that few people objected to be the hero of a ghost story, or the favored witness of a spiritual manifestation. Nor could Richards find fault with this view of his own experience, hitherto kept a secret, so long as it did not refer to his relations with the fair Cota. Summoning him at once to his sanctum, he briefly repeated the story he had just heard, and his purpose of using it. To his surprise, Richards’s face assumed a seriousness and anxiety equal to Enriquez’s own.
“It’s a good story, Mr. Grey,” he said awkwardly, “and I ain’t sayin’ it ain’t mighty good newspaper stuff, but it won’t do now, for the whole mystery’s up and the assailant found.”
“Found! When? Why didn’t you tell me before?” exclaimed Grey, in astonishment.
“I didn’t reckon ye were so keen on it,” said Richards embarrassedly, “and—and—it wasn’t my own secret altogether.”
“Go on,” said the editor impatiently.
“Well,” said Richards slowly and doggedly, “ye see there was a fool that was sweet on Cota, and he allowed himself to be bedeviled by her to ride her cursed pink and yaller mustang. Naturally the beast bolted at once, but he managed to hang on by the mane for half a mile or so, when it took to buck-jumpin’. The first ‘buck’ threw him clean into the road, but didn’t stun him, yet when he tried to rise, the first thing he knowed he was grabbed from behind and half choked by somebody. He was held so tight that he couldn’t turn, but he managed to get out his revolver and fire two shots under his arm. The grip held on for a minute, and then loosened, and the somethin’ slumped down on top o’ him, but he managed to work himself around. And then—what do you think he saw?—why, that thar hoss! with two bullet holes in his neck, lyin’ beside him, but still grippin’ his coat collar and neck-handkercher in his teeth! Yes, sir! the rough that attacked Colonel Starbottle, the villain that took me behind when I was leanin’ agin that cursed fence, was that same God-forsaken, hell-invented pinto hoss!”
In a flash of recollection the editor remembered his own experience, and the singular scuffle outside the stable door of the fonda. Undoubtedly Cota had saved him from a similar attack.
“But why not tell this story with the other?” said the editor, returning to his first idea. “It’s tremendously interesting.”
“It won’t do,” said Richards, with dogged resolution.
“Because, Mr. Grey—that fool was myself!”
“You! Again attacked!”
“Yes,” said Richards, with a darkening face. “Again attacked, and by the same hoss! Cota’s hoss! Whether Cota was or was not knowin’ its tricks, she was actually furious at me for killin’ it—and it’s all over ’twixt me and her.”
“Nonsense,” said the editor impulsively; “she will forgive you! You didn’t know your assailant was a horse when you fired. Look at the attack on you in the road!”
Richards shook his head with dogged hopelessness. “It’s no use, Mr. Grey. I oughter guessed it was a hoss then—thar was nothin’ else in that corral. No! Cota’s already gone away back to San Jose, and I reckon the Ramierez has got scared of her and packed her off. So, on account of its bein’ her hoss, and what happened betwixt me and her, you see my mouth is shut.”
“And the columns of the ‘Clarion’ too,” said the editor, with a sigh.
“I know it’s hard, sir, but it’s better so. I’ve reckoned mebbe she was a little crazy, and since you’ve told me that Spanish yarn, it mout be that she was sort o’ playin’ she was that priest, and trained that mustang ez she did.”
After a pause, something of his old self came back into his blue eyes as he sadly hitched up his braces and passed them over his broad shoulders. “Yes, sir, I was a fool, for we’ve lost the only bit of real sensation news that ever came in the way of the ‘Clarion.’”