At the United States end of an international river bridge, four armed
rangers sweltered in a little 'dobe hut, keeping a fairly faithful
espionage upon the lagging trail of passengers from the Mexican side.
Bud Dawson, proprietor of the Top Notch Saloon, had, on the evening
previous, violently ejected from his premises one Leandro Garcia, for
alleged violation of the Top Notch code of behaviour. Garcia had
mentioned twenty-four hours as a limit, by which time he would call
and collect a painful indemnity for personal satisfaction.
This Mexican, although a tremendous braggart, was thoroughly
courageous, and each side of the river respected him for one of these
attributes. He and a following of similar bravoes were addicted to the
pastime of retrieving towns from stagnation.
The day designated by Garcia for retribution was to be further
signalised on the American side by a cattlemen's convention, a bull
fight, and an old settlers' barbecue and picnic. Knowing the avenger
to be a man of his word, and believing it prudent to court peace while
three such gently social relaxations were in progress, Captain
McNulty, of the ranger company stationed there, detailed his
lieutenant and three men for duty at the end of the bridge. Their
instructions were to prevent the invasion of Garcia, either alone or
attended by his gang.
Travel was slight that sultry afternoon, and the rangers swore gently,
and mopped their brows in their convenient but close quarters. For an
hour no one had crossed save an old woman enveloped in a brown wrapper
and a black mantilla, driving before her a burro loaded with kindling
wood tied in small bundles for peddling. Then three shots were fired
down the street, the sound coming clear and snappy through the still
The four rangers quickened from sprawling, symbolic figures of
indolence to alert life, but only one rose to his feet. Three turned
their eyes beseechingly but hopelessly upon the fourth, who had gotten
nimbly up and was buckling his cartridge-belt around him. The three
knew that Lieutenant Bob Buckley, in command, would allow no man of
them the privilege of investigating a row when he himself might go.
The agile, broad-chested lieutenant, without a change of expression in
his smooth, yellow-brown, melancholy face, shot the belt strap through
the guard of the buckle, hefted his sixes in their holsters as a belle
gives the finishing touches to her toilette, caught up his Winchester,
and dived for the door. There he paused long enough to caution his
comrades to maintain their watch upon the bridge, and then plunged
into the broiling highway.
The three relapsed into resigned inertia and plaintive comment.
"I've heard of fellows," grumbled Broncho Leathers, "what was wedded
to danger, but if Bob Buckley ain't committed bigamy with trouble, I'm
a son of a gun."
"Peculiarness of Bob is," inserted the Nueces Kid, "he ain't had
proper trainin'. He never learned how to git skeered. Now, a man ought
to be skeered enough when he tackles a fuss to hanker after readin'
his name on the list of survivors, anyway."
"Buckley," commented Ranger No. 3, who was a misguided Eastern man,
burdened with an education, "scraps in such a solemn manner that I
have been led to doubt its spontaneity. I'm not quite onto his system,
but he fights, like Tybalt, by the book of arithmetic."
"I never heard," mentioned Broncho, "about any of Dibble's ways of
mixin' scrappin' and cipherin'."
"Triggernometry?" suggested the Nueces infant.
"That's rather better than I hoped from you," nodded the Easterner,
approvingly. "The other meaning is that Buckley never goes into a
fight without giving away weight. He seems to dread taking the
slightest advantage. That's quite close to foolhardiness when you are
dealing with horse-thieves and fence-cutters who would ambush you any
night, and shoot you in the back if they could. Buckley's too full of
sand. He'll play Horatius and hold the bridge once too often some
"I'm on there," drawled the Kid; "I mind that bridge gang in the
reader. Me, I go instructed for the other chap--Spurious Somebody--the
one that fought and pulled his freight, to fight 'em on some other
"Anyway," summed up Broncho, "Bob's about the gamest man I ever see
along the Rio Bravo. Great Sam Houston! If she gets any hotter she'll
sizzle!" Broncho whacked at a scorpion with his four-pound Stetson
felt, and the three watchers relapsed into comfortless silence.
How well Bob Buckley had kept his secret, since these men, for two
years his side comrades in countless border raids and dangers, thus
spake of him, not knowing that he was the most arrant physical coward
in all that Rio Bravo country! Neither his friends nor his enemies had
suspected him of aught else than the finest courage. It was purely a
physical cowardice, and only by an extreme, grim effort of will had he
forced his craven body to do the bravest deeds. Scourging himself
always, as a monk whips his besetting sin, Buckley threw himself with
apparent recklessness into every danger, with the hope of some day
ridding himself of the despised affliction. But each successive test
brought no relief, and the ranger's face, by nature adapted to
cheerfulness and good-humour, became set to the guise of gloomy
melancholy. Thus, while the frontier admired his deeds, and his
prowess was celebrated in print and by word of mouth in many camp-
fires in the valley of the Bravo, his heart was sick within him. Only
himself knew of the horrible tightening of the chest, the dry mouth,
the weakening of the spine, the agony of the strung nerves--the never-
failing symptoms of his shameful malady.
One mere boy in his company was wont to enter a fray with a leg
perched flippantly about the horn of his saddle, a cigarette hanging
from his lips, which emitted smoke and original slogans of clever
invention. Buckley would have given a year's pay to attain that devil-
may-care method. Once the debonair youth said to him: "Buck, you go
into a scrap like it was a funeral. Not," he added, with a
complimentary wave of his tin cup, "but what it generally is."
Buckley's conscience was of the New England order with Western
adjustments, and he continued to get his rebellious body into as many
difficulties as possible; wherefore, on that sultry afternoon he chose
to drive his own protesting limbs to investigation of that sudden
alarm that had startled the peace and dignity of the State.
Two squares down the street stood the Top Notch Saloon. Here Buckley
came upon signs of recent upheaval. A few curious spectators pressed
about its front entrance, grinding beneath their heels the fragments
of a plate-glass window. Inside, Buckley found Bud Dawson utterly
ignoring a bullet wound in his shoulder, while he feelingly wept at
having to explain why he failed to drop the "blamed masquerooter," who
shot him. At the entrance of the ranger Bud turned appealingly to him
for confirmation of the devastation he might have dealt.
"You know, Buck, I'd 'a' plum got him, first rattle, if I'd thought a
minute. Come in a-masque-rootin', playin' female till he got the drop,
and turned loose. I never reached for a gun, thinkin' it was sure
Chihuahua Betty, or Mrs. Atwater, or anyhow one of the Mayfield girls
comin' a-gunnin', which they might, liable as not. I never thought of
that blamed Garcia until--"
"Garcia!" snapped Buckley. "How did he get over here?"
Bud's bartender took the ranger by the arm and led him to the side
door. There stood a patient grey burro cropping the grass along the
gutter, with a load of kindling wood tied across its back. On the
ground lay a black shawl and a voluminous brown dress.
"Masquerootin' in them things," called Bud, still resisting attempted
ministrations to his wounds. "Thought he was a lady till he gave a
yell and winged me."
"He went down this side street," said the bartender. "He was alone,
and he'll hide out till night when his gang comes over. You ought to
find him in that Mexican lay-out below the depot. He's got a girl down
"How was he armed?" asked Buckley.
"Two pearl-handled sixes, and a knife."
"Keep this for me, Billy," said the ranger, handing over his
Winchester. Quixotic, perhaps, but it was Bob Buckley's way. Another
man--and a braver one--might have raised a posse to accompany him. It
was Buckley's rule to discard all preliminary advantage.
The Mexican had left behind him a wake of closed doors and an empty
street, but now people were beginning to emerge from their places of
refuge with assumed unconsciousness of anything having happened. Many
citizens who knew the ranger pointed out to him with alacrity the
course of Garcia's retreat.
As Buckley swung along upon the trail he felt the beginning of the
suffocating constriction about his throat, the cold sweat under the
brim of his hat, the old, shameful, dreaded sinking of his heart as it
went down, down, down in his bosom.
The morning train of the Mexican Central had that day been three hours
late, thus failing to connect with the I. & G.N. on the other side of
the river. Passengers for /Los Estados Unidos/ grumblingly sought
entertainment in the little swaggering mongrel town of two nations,
for, until the morrow, no other train would come to rescue them.
Grumblingly, because two days later would begin the great fair and
races in San Antone. Consider that at that time San Antone was the hub
of the wheel of Fortune, and the names of its spokes were Cattle,
Wool, Faro, Running Horses, and Ozone. In those times cattlemen played
at crack-loo on the sidewalks with double-eagles, and gentlemen backed
their conception of the fortuitous card with stacks limited in height
only by the interference of gravity. Wherefore, thither journeyed the
sowers and the reapers--they who stampeded the dollars, and they who
rounded them up. Especially did the caterers to the amusement of the
people haste to San Antone. Two greatest shows on earth were already
there, and dozens of smallest ones were on the way.
On a side track near the mean little 'dobe depot stood a private car,
left there by the Mexican train that morning and doomed by an
ineffectual schedule to ignobly await, amid squalid surroundings,
connection with the next day's regular.
The car had been once a common day-coach, but those who had sat in it
and gringed to the conductor's hat-band slips would never have
recognised it in its transformation. Paint and gilding and certain
domestic touches had liberated it from any suspicion of public
servitude. The whitest of lace curtains judiciously screened its
windows. From its fore end drooped in the torrid air the flag of
Mexico. From its rear projected the Stars and Stripes and a busy
stovepipe, the latter reinforcing in its suggestion of culinary
comforts the general suggestion of privacy and ease. The beholder's
eye, regarding its gorgeous sides, found interest to culminate in a
single name in gold and blue letters extending almost its entire
length--a single name, the audacious privilege of royalty and genius.
Doubly, then, was this arrogant nomenclature here justified; for the
name was that of "Alvarita, Queen of the Serpent Tribe." This, her
car, was back from a triumphant tour of the principal Mexican cities,
and now headed for San Antonio, where, according to promissory
advertisement, she would exhibit her "Marvellous Dominion and Fearless
Control over Deadly and Venomous Serpents, Handling them with Ease as
they Coil and Hiss to the Terror of Thousands of Tongue-tied
One hundred in the shade kept the vicinity somewhat depeopled. This
quarter of the town was a ragged edge; its denizens the bubbling froth
of five nations; its architecture tent, /jacal/, and 'dobe; its
distractions the hurdy-gurdy and the informal contribution to the
sudden stranger's store of experience. Beyond this dishonourable
fringe upon the old town's jowl rose a dense mass of trees,
surmounting and filling a little hollow. Through this bickered a small
stream that perished down the sheer and disconcerting side of the
great canon of the Rio Bravo del Norte.
In this sordid spot was condemned to remain for certain hours the
impotent transport of the Queen of the Serpent Tribe.
The front door of the car was open. Its forward end was curtained off
into a small reception-room. Here the admiring and propitiatory
reporters were wont to sit and transpose the music of Senorita
Alvarita's talk into the more florid key of the press. A picture of
Abraham Lincoln hung against a wall; one of a cluster of school-girls
grouped upon stone steps was in another place; a third was Easter
lilies in a blood-red frame. A neat carpet was under foot. A pitcher,
sweating cold drops, and a glass stood on a fragile stand. In a willow
rocker, reading a newspaper, sat Alvarita.
Spanish, you would say; Andalusian, or, better still, Basque; that
compound, like the diamond, of darkness and fire. Hair, the shade of
purple grapes viewed at midnight. Eyes, long, dusky, and disquieting
with their untroubled directness of gaze. Face, haughty and bold,
touched with a pretty insolence that gave it life. To hasten
conviction of her charm, but glance at the stacks of handbills in the
corner, green, and yellow, and white. Upon them you see an incompetent
presentment of the senorita in her professional garb and pose.
Irresistible, in black lace and yellow ribbons, she faces you; a blue
racer is spiralled upon each bare arm; coiled twice about her waist
and once about her neck, his horrid head close to hers, you perceive
Kuku, the great eleven-foot Asian python.
A hand drew aside the curtain that partitioned the car, and a middle-
aged, faded woman holding a knife and a half-peeled potato looked in
"Alviry, are you right busy?"
"I'm reading the home paper, ma. What do you think! that pale, tow-
headed Matilda Price got the most votes in the /News/ for the
prettiest girl in Gallipo--/lees/."
"Shush! She wouldn't of done it if /you'd/ been home, Alviry. Lord
knows, I hope we'll be there before fall's over. I'm tired gallopin'
round the world playin' we are dagoes, and givin' snake shows. But
that ain't what I wanted to say. That there biggest snake's gone
again. I've looked all over the car and can't find him. He must have
been gone an hour. I remember hearin' somethin' rustlin' along the
floor, but I thought it was you."
"Oh, blame that old rascal!" exclaimed the Queen, throwing down her
paper. "This is the third time he's got away. George never /will/
fasten down the lid to his box properly. I do believe he's /afraid/ of
Kuku. Now I've got to go hunt him."
"Better hurry; somebody might hurt him."
The Queen's teeth showed in a gleaming, contemptuous smile. "No
danger. When they see Kuku outside they simply scoot away and buy
bromides. There's a crick over between here and the river. That old
scamp'd swap his skin any time for a drink of running water. I guess
I'll find him there, all right."
A few minutes later Alvarita stopped upon the forward platform, ready
for her quest. Her handsome black skirt was shaped to the most recent
proclamation of fashion. Her spotless shirt-waist gladdened the eye in
that desert of sunshine, a swelling oasis, cool and fresh. A man's
split-straw hat sat firmly on her coiled, abundant hair. Beneath her
serene, round, impudent chin a man's four-in-hand tie was jauntily
knotted about a man's high, stiff collar. A parasol she carried, of
white silk, and its fringe was lace, yellowly genuine.
I will grant Gallipolis as to her costume, but firmly to Seville or
Valladolid I am held by her eyes; castanets, balconies, mantillas,
serenades, ambuscades, escapades--all these their dark depths
"Ain't you afraid to go out alone, Alviry?" queried the Queen-mother
anxiously. "There's so many rough people about. Mebbe you'd better--"
"I never saw anything I was afraid of yet, ma. 'Specially people. And
men in particular. Don't you fret. I'll trot along back as soon as I
find that runaway scamp."
The dust lay thick upon the bare ground near the tracks. Alvarita's
eye soon discovered the serrated trail of the escaped python. It led
across the depot grounds and away down a smaller street in the
direction of the little canon, as predicted by her. A stillness and
lack of excitement in the neighbourhood encouraged the hope that, as
yet, the inhabitants were unaware that so formidable a guest traversed
their highways. The heat had driven them indoors, whence outdrifted
occasional shrill laughs, or the depressing whine of a maltreated
concertina. In the shade a few Mexican children, like vivified stolid
idols in clay, stared from their play, vision-struck and silent, as
Alvarita came and went. Here and there a woman peeped from a door and
stood dumb, reduced to silence by the aspect of the white silk
A hundred yards and the limits of the town were passed, scattered
chaparral succeeding, and then a noble grove, overflowing the bijou
canon. Through this a small bright stream meandered. Park-like it was,
with a kind of cockney ruralness further endorsed by the waste papers
and rifled tins of picnickers. Up this stream, and down it, among its
pseudo-sylvan glades and depressions, wandered the bright and
unruffled Alvarita. Once she saw evidence of the recreant reptile's
progress in his distinctive trail across a spread of fine sand in the
arroyo. The living water was bound to lure him; he could not be far
So sure was she of his immediate proximity that she perched herself to
idle for a time in the curve of a great creeper that looped down from
a giant water-elm. To reach this she climbed from the pathway a little
distance up the side of a steep and rugged incline. Around her
chaparral grew thick and high. A late-blooming ratama tree dispensed
from its yellow petals a sweet and persistent odour. Adown the ravine
rustled a seductive wind, melancholy with the taste of sodden, fallen
Alvarita removed her hat, and undoing the oppressive convolutions of
her hair, began to slowly arrange it in two long, dusky plaits.
From the obscure depths of a thick clump of evergreen shrubs five feet
away, two small jewel-bright eyes were steadfastly regarding her.
Coiled there lay Kuku, the great python; Kuku, the magnificent, he of
the plated muzzle, the grooved lips, the eleven-foot stretch of
elegantly and brilliantly mottled skin. The great python was viewing
his mistress without a sound or motion to disclose his presence.
Perhaps the splendid truant forefelt his capture, but, screened by the
foliage, thought to prolong the delight of his escapade. What pleasure
it was, after the hot and dusty car, to lie thus, smelling the running
water, and feeling the agreeable roughness of the earth and stones
against his body! Soon, very soon the Queen would find him, and he,
powerless as a worm in her audacious hands, would be returned to the
dark chest in the narrow house that ran on wheels.
Alvarita heard a sudden crunching of the gravel below her. Turning her
head she saw a big, swarthy Mexican, with a daring and evil
expression, contemplating her with an ominous, dull eye.
"What do you want?" she asked as sharply as five hairpins between her
lips would permit, continuing to plait her hair, and looking him over
with placid contempt. The Mexican continued to gaze at her, and showed
his teeth in a white, jagged smile.
"I no hurt-y you, Senorita," he said.
"You bet you won't," answered the Queen, shaking back one finished,
massive plait. "But don't you think you'd better move on?"
"Not hurt-y you--no. But maybeso take one /beso/--one li'l kees, you
The man smiled again, and set his foot to ascend the slope. Alvarita
leaned swiftly and picked up a stone the size of a cocoanut.
"Vamoose, quick," she ordered peremptorily, "you /coon/!"
The red of insult burned through the Mexican's dark skin.
"/Hidalgo, Yo/!" he shot between his fangs. "I am not neg-r-ro!
/Diabla bonita/, for that you shall pay me."
He made two quick upward steps this time, but the stone, hurled by no
weak arm, struck him square in the chest. He staggered back to the
footway, swerved half around, and met another sight that drove all
thoughts of the girl from his head. She turned her eyes to see what
had diverted his interest. A man with red-brown, curling hair and a
melancholy, sunburned, smooth-shaven face was coming up the path,
twenty yards away. Around the Mexican's waist was buckled a pistol
belt with two empty holsters. He had laid aside his sixes--possibly in
the /jacal/ of the fair Pancha--and had forgotten them when the
passing of the fairer Alvarita had enticed him to her trail. His hands
now flew instinctively to the holsters, but finding the weapons gone,
he spread his fingers outward with the eloquent, abjuring, deprecating
Latin gesture, and stood like a rock. Seeing his plight, the newcomer
unbuckled his own belt containing two revolvers, threw it upon the
ground, and continued to advance.
"Splendid!" murmured Alvarita, with flashing eyes.
As Bob Buckley, according to the mad code of bravery that his
sensitive conscience imposed upon his cowardly nerves, abandoned his
guns and closed in upon his enemy, the old, inevitable nausea of
abject fear wrung him. His breath whistled through his constricted air
passages. His feet seemed like lumps of lead. His mouth was dry as
dust. His heart, congested with blood, hurt his ribs as it thumped
against them. The hot June day turned to moist November. And still he
advanced, spurred by a mandatory pride that strained its uttermost
against his weakling flesh.
The distance between the two men slowly lessened. The Mexican stood,
immovable, waiting. When scarce five yards separated them a little
shower of loosened gravel rattled down from above to the ranger's
feet. He glanced upward with instinctive caution. A pair of dark eyes,
brilliantly soft, and fierily tender, encountered and held his own.
The most fearful heart and the boldest one in all the Rio Bravo
country exchanged a silent and inscrutable communication. Alvarita,
still seated within her vine, leaned forward above the breast-high
chaparral. One hand was laid across her bosom. One great dark braid
curved forward over her shoulder. Her lips were parted; her face was
lit with what seemed but wonder--great and absolute wonder. Her eyes
lingered upon Buckley's. Let no one ask or presume to tell through
what subtle medium the miracle was performed. As by a lightning flash
two clouds will accomplish counterpoise and compensation of electric
surcharge, so on that eyeglance the man received his complement of
manhood, and the maid conceded what enriched her womanly grace by its
The Mexican, suddenly stirring, ventilated his attitude of apathetic
waiting by conjuring swiftly from his bootleg a long knife. Buckley
cast aside his hat, and laughed once aloud, like a happy school-boy at
a frolic. Then, empty-handed, he sprang nimbly, and Garcia met him
So soon was the engagement ended that disappointment imposed upon the
ranger's warlike ecstasy. Instead of dealing the traditional downward
stroke, the Mexican lunged straight with his knife. Buckley took the
precarious chance, and caught his wrist, fair and firm. Then he
delivered the good Saxon knock-out blow--always so pathetically
disastrous to the fistless Latin races--and Garcia was down and out,
with his head under a clump of prickly pears. The ranger looked up
again to the Queen of the Serpents.
Alvarita scrambled down to the path.
"I'm mighty glad I happened along when I did," said the ranger.
"He--he frightened me so!" cooed Alvarita.
They did not hear the long, low hiss of the python under the shrubs.
Wiliest of the beasts, no doubt he was expressing the humiliation he
felt at having so long dwelt in subjection to this trembling and
colouring mistress of his whom he had deemed so strong and potent and
Then came galloping to the spot the civic authorities; and to them the
ranger awarded the prostrate disturber of the peace, whom they bore
away limply across the saddle of one of their mounts. But Buckley and
Slowly, slowly they walked. The ranger regained his belt of weapons.
With a fine timidity she begged the indulgence of fingering the great
.45's, with little "Ohs" and "Ahs" of new-born, delicious shyness.
The /canoncito/ was growing dusky. Beyond its terminus in the river
bluff they could see the outer world yet suffused with the waning
glory of sunset.
A scream--a piercing scream of fright from Alvarita. Back she cowered,
and the ready, protecting arm of Buckley formed her refuge. What
terror so dire as to thus beset the close of the reign of the never-
Across the path there crawled a /caterpillar/--a horrid, fuzzy, two-
inch caterpillar! Truly, Kuku, thou went avenged. Thus abdicated the
Queen of the Serpent Tribe--/viva la reina/!