It was in the middle of the rainy season. Stepping out of his office, where h_ad just added a few drops of Scotch to the water he was absorbing at ever_ore, the station agent came face to face with the engineer of the down train.
“Nine hours late?” The engineer gruffly repeated the other’s comment. “We ar_ucky to be here at all. Besides being sopping wet, the wood we’re burning i_hat dosey it’d make a fireproof curtain for hell. This kind of railroadin_on’t suit my book, and I’m telling you that if they don’t serve us ou_omething pretty soon that smells like wood I know one fat engineer that wil_e missing on this line.” Jerking his thumb at the lone passenger who ha_escended at the station, he added: “But for that chap we’d never have go_hrough. When the track went out from under us at La Puente he pitched in an_howed us no end of wrinkles. If you’ve got anything inside just give him _ip for me.”
“Hullo, Mr. Seyd!” Coming face to face with the passenger after the train ha_one on, the agent thrust out his hand. “What a pity you weren’t on the othe_rain. She was twenty hours late—in fact, only pulled out a couple of hour_go. Miss Francesca was aboard, and she just left.”
The agent laughed. “Sure! She don’t care. Three weeks ago she came gallopin_n through one of the heaviest rains and took the up train.”
“So she has been home since I left?”
“Let me see—that’s nigh on three months, isn’t it? Sure, she came home jus_fter you left.”
With this bit of information lingering in the forefront of his mind Seyd, _ittle later, rode out from the station. Not that it engrossed, by any means, the whole of his thought. Even had he been free, the hard work and bitte_isappointment of the first venture, and the equally hard thought and carefu_lanning for the second during his long absence in the States, would have bee_ufficient to keep her in the background. If he had never happened to se_rancesca again she would probably have lingered as an unusually pretty fac_n the gallery of his mind. While it was only natural that he should wonder i_he news that he sent in by Caliban had ever reached her ear, it was merely _assing thought. His mind soon turned again to his plans. Up to the momen_hat, four hours later, he came slipping and sliding downhill upon her she wa_ltogether out of his thought.
For that very reason his fresh senses leaped to take the picture she mad_tanding in the gray sheeting rain beside her fallen horse, and through it_ery difference from either the tan riding habit or virginal batiste of hi_emory her loose waterproof with its capote hood helped to stamp this figur_pon his brain. Before she said a word he had gone back to the feelings o_our months ago.
The pelting rain had washed all but a few clay streaks off her coat. Touchin_hem, she explained: “The poor beast fell under me. I fear it has broken _eg.”
While speaking she offered her hand; and if that had not been sufficient, he_riendly smile more than answered his speculation. Caliban’s niece ha_ertainly done her duty! Indeed, while he was stooping over the fallen anima_ quick glance upward would have given him a look evenly compounded o_ischief and remorse. It gave place to sudden sorrow when he spoke.
“It is broken, all right. There is only one thing to be done. If you will lea_y horse around the shoulder of the hill I will put the poor thing out of it_ain.”
Her life had been cast too much in the open for her to be ignorant of th_eeds of the case. Nevertheless, he saw that her eyes were brimming as she le_is horse away; and, remembering their black fire on the day that she ha_rdered the charcoal-burners flogged, he wondered. It would have been eve_arder to reconcile the two impressions had he seen the tears rolling down he_heeks when the muffled report of his pistol followed her around the hill. Bu_he had wiped them away before he rejoined her. If the sensitive red mout_rembled, her voice was under control.
“No, I had not waited long,” she answered his question. “You see, the poo_reature lost a shoe earlier in the day, and I had to ride back to have i_eplaced. It would have been better had I stayed there.”
For the moment he was puzzled. An hour ago he had ridden past the las_abitation, a flimsy hut already overcrowded with the peon, his wife, thei_hildren, chickens, and pigs. All around them stretched wide wastes o_olcanic rock and scrub. They were, as he knew, on the hacienda San Angel, bu_he buildings lay five leagues to the north. With hard riding he had expecte_o make the inn at the foot of the Barranca wall that night. She might do i_y taking his horse. But if anything went wrong? She would be alone—al_ight—in the rain! He felt easier when she refused the offer of his beast.
“And leave you to walk? No, sir.”
A second offer to walk by her side not only ran counter to the prejudice of _ace of riders, but also aroused her sympathies. “I could never think of it!” After a moment of thought she propounded her own solution. “Your beast i_trong. I have ridden double on an animal half his size. We will both ride.”
Now, though Seyd had long ago grown to the sight of rancheros on their way t_arket in the embrace of their buxom brown wives, the suddenness of it mad_im gasp. But by a quick mounting he succeeded in hiding the rush of blood t_is face. Also he managed to control his voice.
“Fine idea! Give me your hand.”
Just touching his foot, she rose like a bird to the croup. When, as the hors_oved on, she slid an arm around his waist his demoralization was full an_omplete. If he glanced down it was to see her fingers resting like smal_hite butterflies on his raincoat. Did he look up, then a faint perfume o_amp hair would come floating over his shoulder. He thrilled when her clas_ightened as the horse broke into a gentle trot, and was altogether in a ba_ay when her merry laugh restored order among his senses.
“Now we can play Rosa and Rosario on their way to market. It will be for yo_o grumble at prices while I rail at the government tax that puts woolen_eyond the purse of a peon.”
“I prefer to ask what brought you out in such weather.” He returned her laugh.
“A pretty pickle you would have been in if I had not come along.”
He felt the vigorous shake of her head. “I should have walked back to the las_ut, and an oxcart would have taken me in to the station.”
“But then you would have been out all night.”
“I should have loved it.” Though he did not see the sudden blooming under he_ood, he felt the unconscious squeeze which testified to the sincerity of he_eeling. “I love them—the roar of the wind, black darkness, the beat of th_ain in my face. Mother would have had me stay in Mexico till the rains wer_ver, but when Don Luis wrote that the river was at flood nothing could hol_e.” He had thrilled under her unconscious pressure, but her conclusion prove_n excellent corrective. “I am afraid that the site for your new building_ust be under water.”
“How can that be?” He spoke quickly. “We are building well back from las_ear’s mark, and Don Luis said that it was the highest known.”
“But this year it has gone even higher—and all because of the Yankee companie_hat are stripping the upper valley of timber. There were great fires, too, last year which broke away from their servants and burned hundreds of miles o_oods.”
Her quiet answer went far to allay his sudden suspicion, but not his anxiety.
He spoke of Billy. “It is over a month since he came out to the station fo_tores, and the agent told me that none of your people had seen him fo_eeks.”
“But he has with him Angelo”—she gave Caliban his correct name—“and he, as _nce told you, was counted Sebastien’s best man in his war against th_rigands. Though he may not show it to you, he is not ungrateful for the gif_f his life. If food is to be had in the country, Mr. Thornton will not g_acking.”
He spoke more cheerfully. “Then I don’t care; though if the site _is_ floode_e shall be thrown back at least three months with our work.”
“And what is three months?” she added, laughing.
To him it was a great deal. Before paying over the loan Don Luis’s lawyers ha_aken Seyd’s signatures upon certain instruments which exhibited the Genera_n the new light of a shrewd and conservative business man. Withal, havin_till plenty of time, he answered quite cheerfully when she turned th_onversation with a question concerning his plans. Under the stimulation o_er curiosity, which surprised him by its intelligence, he went into details, talking and answering her questions while the horse trudged steadily on int_he darkening rain. If the trail had not suddenly faded out, night would hav_aught them unnoticed.
In that volcanic country, where for long stretches a hoof left no impression, the loss of a trail was a common experience, and, trusting to the instinct o_he beast, Seyd gave it the rein. Left to its own devices, however, i_radually swerved from the beating rain and presently turned on to a cattl_rack which swung away into gum copal trees and scrub oak at an imperceptibl_ngle. Had he been alone Seyd would have soon noticed the absence of the Azte_uin. As it was, but not until an hour later, Francesca was the first t_peak.
“That’s so,” he agreed, when she drew his attention. “We ought to have passe_t long ago. The animal evidently picked up a wrong track coming out from th_ocks.” After a moment’s reflection he said: “It would be worse than foolis_o try to go back. We could never find the trail in this black rain. Bette_ollow on and see where it will bring us.” With a sudden remembrance of wha_t might mean to her, a young girl brought up in the rigid conventions of th_ountry, he repentantly added: “I’m awfully sorry for you. I ought to b_icked for my carelessness.”
“No, I have traveled this trail much oftener than you,” she quietly protested.
“If any one is blamed I should be the one.”
Sitting there in black darkness, lost in those lonely volcanic hills, with th_ain dashing in his face and the roar of the wind in his ears, he was prepare_o appreciate her quiet answer. “You are a brick!” he exclaimed.
“Nevertheless, I feel my guilt.”
“Then you need not.” She gave a little laugh. “Did I not say that I enjoye_eing out at night in the rain?”
“And now the gods have called your bluff.”
“ _Bluff?_ ” She laughed again at the meaning of that rank Americanism. “I_as no bluff, as you will presently see.”
And see he did—during the long hour they spent splashing along in blac_arkness, up hill, down dale, fording swollen arroyos, through chaparral whic_ore at them with myriad claws and wet woods whose boughs lashed their faces.
Up to the moment that the roof of a hut suddenly loomed out against the dim, dark sky she uttered no doubt or complaint. When, having tied his horse unde_he wide eaves, he lit a match inside, its flare revealed her face, quiet an_erene.
Also it showed that which, while not nearly so interesting, had its immediat_ses—a candle stuck in a _tequila_ bottle; and its steadier flare presentl_elped them to another find—a chemisette and other garments of feminine wear, spotlessly clean and smoothly ironed, arranged on a string that ran over _unk in one corner.
“The fiesta wear of our hostess,” Francesca remarked. “How lucky! for I a_renched.”
“And look at that pile of dry wood!” he exclaimed. “The gods are with us. I’l_uild a fire, then while I rub down the horse you can change. What’s this?”
It was a rough sketch done with charcoal on the table. Two parallelograms wit_ticks for legs were in furious pursuit of certain horned squares which, i_heir turn, were in full flight toward a doll’s house in the far corner.
“Oh, I know!” the girl cried, after a moment of study. “Here, in the wil_ountry where they never see man, are raised the fighting bulls for the ring_f Mexico. This hut belongs to a vaquero of San Angel, and this is an order, left in his absence, to drive the bulls into the hacienda.” Laying her finge_n a triangle which had evidently been added later, she continued, laughing: “This shows that his woman has gone with him. They were evidently called awa_nexpectedly, for she had already set the corn to soak in this _olla_ for th_upper tortillas. And the saints be praised! Here are dried beef, salt, an_hilis. Now hurry the fire, and you shall see what a cook I am.”
While he was building it in the center of the mud floor she made other finds—_ube of brown sugar, coffee, a cake of goat’s cheese; and her little delighte_xclamations over each discovery both amused him and proved how sincere wa_er acceptance of the situation. “She’s a brick!” he told the horse, rubbin_im down, outside, with wisps pulled out from the under side of the thatch.
“Thoroughbred in blood and bone.” As the animal had already experimented wit_he thatch and found it quite to its liking, the question of provender wa_ettled. But in order that Francesca might have ample time to change, Sey_ubbed and rubbed and rubbed till a rattle of clay pots inside gave him leav_o come in.
At the door he paused to admire the picture she made in the red glow of th_ire. In place of the slender girl of the stylish raincoat a pretty peon_aised velvet eyes from the stone _metate_ on which she was vigorously rubbin_oaked corn for the supper tortillas. By emphasizing some features an_oftening others strange attire always gives a new view of a woman. Th_leeveless garment showed the round white arms and foreshortened and fille_ut her slender lines.
Glancing down at her arms, she confessed, with an uneasy wriggle: “I don’_ike it, though I wear décolleté every evening when we are in the city. But _hall soon get used to it.”
Conscious of his admiring eyes, she found them employment in watching th_ortillas. But, having grown accustomed to the new dress by the time suppe_as ready, she left him free to watch the white arms and small hands whic_overed like butterflies over the clay pot. In the lack of all other utensils, they used bits of tortilla for spoons, dipping alternately into the pot whic_he had set between them; nor did he find the chili any the worse for it_ontact with the tortilla which had just taken an impression of her smal_eeth. It required only an after-dinner pipe, to which she graciousl_onsented, to seal his content.
After the wet and fatigue of the trail the warmth and cheer of food and fir_ere extremely grateful, but not conducive to talk. While he sat watching th_obacco smoke curl up into the blackened peak of the roof she leaned, chin i_er hands, elbows on crossed knees, studying the fire. Leaping out of re_oal, an occasional flame set its reflection in her deep eyes, and as his gaz_andered from her around the rough _jacal_ Seyd found it difficult to realiz_hat it was indeed he, Robert Seyd, mining engineer of San Francisco, who sa_here sharing food and fire with a girl, on the one hand scion of the Mexica_ristocracy, descendant on the other of a line which ran back into the di_ime of the Aztecs. The thought stirred the romance within him and helped t_rolong his silence. It would have held him still longer if his musings ha_ot been suddenly interrupted by her merry laugh.
“ _Si?_ ” he inquired, looking suddenly up.
“I was thinking what they would say—my mother, Don Luis, the neighbors?”
“Horrible!” he agreed. “Your mother? What would she say?”
As the white hands flew up in a horrified gesture it was the señora herself. “ _Santa Maria Marissima!_ ”
“And Don Luis?”
Her expression changed from laughter into sudden mischievous demureness. “Hi_emarks, señor, are not for me to repeat.”
Once more her hands went up. “‘Was it not that we always said it of that ma_irl! Maria, thou shalt not speak with her again.’” Smiling, she added, “Fo_ou must know, señor, that I have been held as a horrible example of th_hings a girl should not do since the days of my childhood.”
“Like the devil in the old New England theology,” he suggested, smiling, “yo_ake more converts than the preacher?”
He had to explain before she understood. Then she laughed merrily. “Just so.
What they would do were I to marry, die, or reform, I really cannot tell. I_ould leave a gap almost equal to the loss of the catechism.” She finishe_ith a mock sigh, “They will never appreciate me till I’m dead.”
“Any present danger?”
The smiling mouth pursed demurely under his whimsical glance. “I am afrai_ot. You saw my performance at supper. I am the despair of my mother, wh_ould have me more delicate and refined.”
“No one wants me.”
It slipped out, and he was immediately sorry, but she only laughed. “Tut! tut!
Surveying him from under drooping lashes, a glance soft and warm as velvet, she added: “I will confess. There _were_ others. Some too fat, some too thin, all too stupid, here at home. In Mexico they were triflers—or worse. But o_he honor of a lone maid, señor, never a man among them.” With a sudde_elapse into seriousness she repeated, “Among _all_ of them—never a man.” Though she was looking directly at him, her glance seemed to go on, fly t_ome further vision which, for one second, set its reflection in her eyes.
Then her long silky lashes wiped it out. When they rose again it was ove_ischievous lights. “Never a _man_ ,” with a change of accent.
“But he will come—some day,” he teased.
“And go—after the fashion of dream men.”
“And dream women.”
For a while she studied him curiously. “Then she has not come?”
“Yes,” he answered, with sudden impulse. “But—”
She softly filled the pause. “‘But’ and ‘because’ are woman’s reasons.”
“Unhappily, sometimes man’s,” he gravely answered; and, feeling, perhaps, tha_he conversation was drifting into unsafe latitudes, he rose and began to pul_ry grass from the under side of the thatch. “For you,” he exclaimed, with _lance at the bunk. “I knew you wouldn’t care to sleep there.”
Having arranged a thick layer at a safe distance from the fire, he gathere_nother armful, and was going outside when she called him back. “To make m_ed,” he answered her question.
“In the wet?”
“Oh, it isn’t so bad—here under the eaves.”
“Only an inch of water,” she answered him, with pretty sarcasm; and, indicating certain small trickles that were coming through the cane siding, she gave him his orders. “You will sleep here—inside.”
“But—” he began.
“Señor, I said that you would sleep _inside_.”
As a matter of fact, the “prospect” outside was not inviting, and hi_cquiescence lowered the quick colors his previous obstinacy had raised. Sh_ad already settled down on one elbow; and when, having arranged a bed on th_pposite side of the fire, he lit a second pipe, she studied him through th_moke, wondering what pictures were responsible for his earnest gaze. Bu_armth and comfort presently produced their natural effect, and she began t_od. After a few shy, sleepy glances that showed him still staring moodil_nto the fire her head sank upon the white fullness of her doubled arm.
As a matter of fact, it was his wife’s face that returned his steady gaze fro_ nest of red coal. Absorbed in bitter musings, he received the firs_ntimation of Francesca’s sleep from a sigh which caused him to start a_hough at the report of a gun. Then while the warm blood streamed through hi_rumming pulses, every sense vividly alive, he looked down upon her. With al_he timid awe that Adam must have displayed when he awoke to the sight of Ev_e studied this greatest of masculine experiences, a woman clad in the sof_rmor of sleep.
For some time his senses dwelt only on the fact, and gave him merely the sof_igh of her sleep, the play of firelight over the unconscious figure. Bu_resently his mind began to work, to compare the broad forehead, ova_ontours, fine-cut nostrils, delicate chiseling of her features, with th_ommon prettiness of his wife. Even the little foot and slender ankle, free_y relaxation from the jealous skirt, helped to emphasize differences wide a_hose between a hummingbird and a pouter pigeon. It had required the rigi_election of a thousand generations, the pre-eminence in strength and brain_f a line of fighters to produce the one, just as the slacker choice of _ommoner breed had created the other; and Seyd, whose own blood had come dow_hrough the clean channels of good Colonial stock, recognized the fact. A_ever before he was impressed with the fatuity of his chivalric rashness.
While the firelight rose and fell he strained at the ties which stretched ove_ountains, desert, plains, binding him to the coarse woman in Albuquerque.
His sudden jerk forward was the physical equivalent of his mental strain.
Though homely, even slangy, his mutter, “Your cake is baked, son. The soone_ou let this girl know it the better,” was none the less tragic. The though_as the last in his waking mind.
Before going to sleep he performed one last service. Noticing that sh_hivered under the wet breath of the night, he took off his coat, tiptoe_cross, and, after laying it softly across her shoulders, returned with equa_aution. She did not stir or even change the slow rhythm of her breath, but h_ad no more than lain down before her eyes slowly opened. When his dee_espirations told that he was fast asleep she rose on one elbow and looked a_im across the fire.
In her turn, with glances shyly curious as those with which Eve, newly formed, may have eyed Adam still in “deep sleep,” she noted the wide-spaced, deep-se_yes, strong nose, the ideality of the brows, the humorous puckers at th_orners of his mouth. Though she did not analyze their individual meanings, the totality made a strong appeal to instinct and intuitions formed by th_ast experience of the race. Her impression phrased itself in her murmur, “_holesome face.”
Only the cleft chin seemed to carry a special meaning. Surveying it, a glea_f mischief shot through the soft satisfaction of her look, and she murmure_eneath her breath in Spanish, “Oh, fickle! fickle! Thy wife will need th_harpest of eyes.”
The thought brought a little laugh, and for a minute thereafter she sat, _inger upon her lip, listening for a break in his breathing. When it did no_ome she rose slowly, stole like a mouse across the floor, and laid his coat, light as a feather, over his unprotected shoulders. Back again on her ow_ouch, she looked across at him again; a glance naïve in its enjoyment of th_omantic impropriety of the entire proceeding. Then, curling up under he_aincoat, she fell fast asleep.