THE SONG IN THE DESERT

CHARLES SAXBY August 15 1923

THE SONG IN THE DESERT

CHARLES SAXBY August 15 1923

THE SONG IN THE DESERT

CHARLES SAXBY

HE WAS known to the district as Pablo Sepulveda, and he came riding up from Mexico like some brilliant leaf blown along on the first chill puffs of the autumn santana. A lean, brown fellow, half of him a pair of white cotton trousers, the rest of him wrapped in a serape of scarlet and green, topped by a battered sombrero. He rode gaily, drumming his heels against the flanks of a piebald pony with a wicked white eye. A flash of grinning teeth under his little black moustache, a sultry Spanish song on his lips, for Pablo’s business was the pleasant one of courting a girl—and of winning her, too, for he had a way of his own in such matters.

Above him the sky was an expanse of hard blue, beginning to redden in the west. To the north a range of mountains glittered like amethyst, to the south another range stood up like shape's of blue slate; and between them spread this hundred miles of arroyo and mesa, mottled with yucca and sage, with a line of white monuments running across it. To the north of that line were the smoke cloud from the copper smelter, the snaky thread of the railroad and a few gray cubes that marked a town To the south of it was only emptiness, vast and sullen under its borrowed beauties of distance and colored light.

In that pitiless clearness his gay colors, visible for twenty miles around, marked the innocence of his errand. There were other times, other occasions when, under cover of darkness, Pablo could slip over the border like a grey rat, hardly to be seen or heard at tw'enty paces. A picturesque fellow, with his hawk profile and black curls, rolling brown paper cigarettes in the palm of one hand, shouting his w icked little song—

Porque no se lavan So se lavan con romero—

It was Los Nietos, the Ortez ranch, that he was seeking, far out beyond where the huddled houses of Ysleta melted into a fringe of Kaffir corn and pumpkins. A lonely place, marked by a few tall cotton-woods. The adobe house, bu*lt round three sides of a square, perched on the edge of a deep arroyo at the bottom of which ran a thread of water that, a hundred miles farther on, would become the Rio Grande. A wind-swept place, alternately bleak or sunsmitten, it3 nearest neighbor the belching chimneys of the copper smelter five miles away.

T ON ELI ER than usual it looked in the waning light.

Its doors were dosed and the first puffs of the desert wind rattled the shutters, swaying the scarlet strings of chili peppers hanging to dry upon the walls.

But as he tied his pony and drank from the great dripping olla, he heard a voice singing in the half courtyard enclosed by the three sides of the house. A voice which could belong only to Antonia Ortez, singing a foolish American song.

Striding round the corner of the house, he called out;

“Ohe there in the house! Is anyone home?”

The song stopped at that, with a haste almost breathless the answer came back.

“Come in, señor— come right in.”

She came to meet him. A girl of Spanish blood but born north of the border, warmly rounded bygood food and safety.

Some touch of race must have come down through the centuries to give her that ivory pallor, those hands, and the arched insteps above her slippers. One could imagine a long-gone Ortez, all pride and thread-bare velvet, setting out from old Spain—setting out to find a fortune and finding these barren plains of New Mexico. But this blood had come down to this descendant, endowing her with taste, or perhaps coquetry, enough to

retain something of her native air. An ancient comb of tortoise-shell and silver, a shawl of torn lace draped about hip and bosom, a fan which was entirely superfluous in the chill of that increasing wind.

As she saw Pablo there came surprise, a momentary clouding of her eyes.

“A y de mi, is it then you?”

"Who else you think it was?” hè demanded.

“Oh—I don’t know.”

“Maybe you think it was that gringo from the copper works—eh?” he suggested sullenly.

"Maybe, and maybe I thought it was one coyote come chicken stealing,” she retorted. “What do you this side of the border?”

“Oh, I just come,” he answered vaguely, but with a glance which took in the whole place. “Where your mother and sister.”

“They go for Ysleta to buy some things.”

“And Jose?”

“He go too, to drive that old pig of a mule.”

“And your father and Pepe?”

“They go down river, hauling rock.” A hint of raillery crept into her tone. “It is too bad, yes, for everybody to be out when you come to make visit.”

“You know who I came to see.”

“Do I?” Her eyes glowed with an almost unbelievable innocence, coupled with perplexity. “But how shall I know that when you have riot told me?”

“I come to see the girl I love.”

“0—oh!” She stared in studied pity, sinking her tone to a sympathetic contralto. “Poor Pablo—that mean sister of mine, she go away. Never mind, you just wait and you go see her yet.”

“Sister—” He flung his hat on the ground in exaggerated disgust. “What I care for your sister—eh? It is you —you—I come to see, yes.”

“Me—?”

Her surprise seemed so genuine that one imagined it as actually deceiving herself. Then came a laugh, bubbling and irresistible.

“Then that is all right, because, you see—here I am.” “When you go marry with me, Antonia?”

“Marry—?” She drew away, her eyes widening as if it

were the first time that she had heard the word. “You want me for marry?”

“Want you—ah—”

LIKE some geyser suddenly unpent he poured himself J out. A torrent of words as he moved about her, blown like a flame by his own passion. Snapping his fingers he threw them up towards the sky above the walls,

then seizing her hands he covered her wrists with kisses, ali the time murmuring endearments.—

“ Rosita nina—cor de mi alma—bellissima—” He meant it all so; Pablo always meant' everything, every instant. . But'with another laugh Antonia pulled her hands away.

“Not so fast, Pablo mio. You think that Antonia Ortez is going make marriage with one man from that Old Mexico? No water there, no railroad, no nothing—and you sit and play guitar all day, and at night you sneak across the border for sell aguardiente to those indios.” “But I love you, Antonia.” _ ' •

“Love is good—yes. But the man I marry must have one good job, too.”

“One hundred and fifty pieces the month from those copper works, eh?” he sneered. “Too many gringoes come for this county, now.”

“Then if you no like it this side, stay for your Mexico,” she flashed. x '

“Yes, and I going keep you that side the line,-too.” “You not got me there yet, Pablo.” ; ... -

“No—not yet,” he agreed.

Smiling words, but at the sound of them Antonia, for the first time, realized how alone she was that afternoon. It was only Pablo, of course; Pablo, rather a joke amongst the girls—but somehow-she wished that she had gone with her mother, that she was sauntering in tfie Ysleta plaza, chaffering for wares, slipping into the old church to bow to the staring-eyed Virgin on the altar. And that Mexico just across the line, into which no one willingly went, and from which no good ever came, seemed suddenly very close. .—

If she only knew what time it was, but the sun had gone out in a wrack of cloud and flying sand coming up from the south. The place was suddenly dreary in the copper-colored light, the strings of scarlet peppers like blood upon the walls. Such a secret place—and with that wind there would be no hope of hearing the four o’clock whistle from the smelter. And even so it was not certain that the señor Sherwood would come that afternoon. Of course she was sure—but there had been no definite engagement, she had merely stopped at home because she hoped—and there was always the chance of something going wrong at those old copper works so that he could not get away. .

Her father and brother far down the river, the wind wailing through those rooms empty of any human

presence, and Pablo standing there with raised eyebrows, rolling another cigarette. She could not say how, but in some way she seemed to have caught sight of another Pablo, a stranger to her—a man vaguely threatening!

He could not really mean anything, of course, but her voice trembled a little and to cover it she laughed again, taking up the mandolin vhich lay on the bench beside her.

. “Ah, no talk foolishness, Pablo. Sit down then, smoke your çigarriio and I sing you one song. Y ou won’t understand the words, because you do not speak this language, but maybe you like the tune.”

She struck a chord in the most ragged of time, then lifted her voice in the approved half shouting that goes with such songs:

“She’s mah honey Mah huggy honey-bunch of kisses Ma ra-hag time Honolulululu gal She’s the only one I misses Mah huggy honey—”

Silly words, set to an air that was a bit of froth from that wave of revolt which has so swept the world thes« last years. But it might serve for a few moments at least. She remembered the rumors which followed Pablo—that he had been a member of Villa’s gang, that he was the most pestilent whiskey runner on this section of the border. And now that smouldering witch-fire in his eyes— she became aware that she was secretly fighting for time—time. She sprang lightly up.

“There one dance goes to that.

Not like your Mexican dance; come,

I will teach you, then you can dance with all the girls at the next baile in Ysleta; all the girls go just crazy over this dance—”

She caught at his hands pulling him about, rattling on:

“See—like this—one, two—one, two, three—flat on the feet. We got plenty time, nobody come home before six o’clock.”

Laughter and gay unconsciousness were her only weapons, and behind them her ears were quick for the possible sound of trotting hoofs upon the road.

“Again—you must learn it well and we dance it together at the fiesta—now, again—one, two,—”

Was that really a horse that she heard; did that waning light mean that the smelter whistle had long since blown? If she could but keep Pablo occupied for a while, keep that look from his eyes and his ears deaf to'sounds outside. She hummed the air more loudly, dragging him through the motions of the dance.

Then came relief, so suddenly that it brought weakness with it.

“Anybody home?”

Sherwood’s voice, echoing gaily from the hitching rail. Now that it was gone Antonia realized how great her fear had been; she tried to cover it with assumed annoyance.

11 Ah mai—somebody has come.

Never mind, I give you one lesson some other day, Pablo.”

SHE did it well, but that instant of relief had shown in her eyes and Pablo gritted his teeth at her in a snarl of understanding.

“So that was your game, eh? Very good, I understand.”

Muffling himself again in his serape he stared insolently as Sherwood came round the corner of the house. A sunburned, bright-haired fellow in work-stained Khakis. One of that legion of restless young men, who, since the war, have marched across the country like the remnant of some scattered army. That this one chose to work gained him the respect of men, just as his sunny head, and the melting accents to which he could twist his tongue, brought him the favor of women. Still young enough to believe in romance, he seemed to have found it at the rancho Los Nietos.

With a fling of his gaudy serape, Pablo turned for a last word, smoulderingly dramatic.

“I come again—yes.”

“Any time, Pablo—it always good to see one friend.”

As Pablo stalked away, Sherwood turned to Antonia. “I hope I didn’t interrupt?”

“Ah, but you did,” she teased in English. Then her courage left her and she was merely a girl, white-faced from strain, murmuring incoherencies. “Oh—I been

listen, listen for your horse—he frightened me, yes—and I no hear that whistle—I no know if you go come.”

It was only the sun breaking through that western cloud wrack, but with his arrival the little courtyard had become a place of light. The dead leaves of the cottonwoods, whirling downwards, seemed like flakes of falling gold.

“Frightened you, did he?” Sherwood cried. “Are you alone?”

“Yes, all alone. I been stay for see if you—I mean—” “Antonia—do you mean that?”

They swayed towards each other and she was somehow in his arms. A place of amber light and fluttering gold, the wind, which before had seemed so bleak, now playing like a harp through the branches overhead. She leaned against him, a storm of breath and heart-beats upon his young strength.

“You love me—love me—really love me?” he asked. “I think maybe I—like you—just a little. And you— you like me—eh?”

“I love you—love you—love you—”

He said it over and over, that undying litany of love, and with closed eyes and parted lips she drank her fill of the sound of it.

“That more better, yes,” she sighed. “I been know it7 of course; but I just wanted hear you say it.”

“I never got the chance to say it before,” he told her hair, her eyelids. “There was always your mother or your sister in the way.” «

“Yes—that was why I been—stay home, all aione—”

“You did—?”

To him that confession seemed as wondrous as if the skies had opened. The marvellous subtlety of it—she had stayed home—for him. The grace and wonder of it—and done for him. But something was happening to her— something which blanched her cheeks and brought a gaunt spectre of fear into each of her eyes. She tried to speak, tearing herself away, but the words died in her throat with a choking scream. There came a tearing pain under his shoulder blade—the cottonwoods whirled in enormous menace—the sky went black—

A FALLEN body, sprawlingly inert, which an instant before had been a young man in all the glory of newfound love. And standing above it Pablo Sepulveda, sneeringly wiping his knife.

“That man never going come between me and my girl no more.”

“You—you—”

It was all that she could say, her hands about her throat to relieve that terrible pressure from within.

“Yes, me,” he answered. “Now you going come with me for Mexico.”

Mexico, that forbidding land, so close and'yet so re-

moved. She saw herself dragged over into that waste, leaving this prone thing to accuse the skies with its silence. And Pablo, going free, while Sherwood lay there. She was a girl, helpless and alone, there was nothing she could do—no, not tears —the time for them would come, but it was not now.

“Mexico—” she heard herself saying. “You go take me there?” “You think I going leave you here to tell about this?”

“But Pablo—”

What was it she was saying and what did she mean? Some strange part of her seemed going on of its own volition, while the rest of her stood there dead.

“I cannot go like this, Pablo. I ■ must take things—”

“You come with me now, or I go kill you too—in a little while.”

His red tongue licked at his lips as he looked at her. To be killed, that meant so little to her now. But that “little while”—and Pablo going free, singing his gay songs under girls’ windows—her voice came again as through a haze.

“Kill me then—come now—do it.” She flaunted herself daringly close to him, her fan striking across his lean cheek. “Bah, you silly Pablo—when you going learn something about woman, eh?”

“Antonia—?”

That was more the sound she wanted from him. The rest would follow in some mysterious fashion of its own. Probably an embrace, a v quick snatch at his knife—for her own breast.

“You been think I loved him, no?” “I saw you kiss him.”

“Yes, and—oh, foolish Pablo—I knew you saw me kiss him. Have you no learned yet that when a girl— loves—she just got to hurt a little?” “You mean—ah no, I no believe it.” That loo ready suspicion was upon him again. She must sweep it aside, carry him somehow along in a torrent of words, looks,—kisses, if necessary.

“You think that I, one Mexican, girl, going love one gringo men?” she demanded. “I hate them all same as you do. But a woman must do different from a man, yes. Y ou think I no see you as you come up behind him? One word from me and he would have shot you—yes. But—

I no been speak that word, Pablo— no—”

Ropes of words coiling about him,‘rising and falling on his ears like vocal flames of purple and gold. Scorn for his denseness, warm promise, and passion naked and unashamed. A woman more than at bay, a woman robbed of her love, now turned huntress and using whatever weapons she had.

“No, I no been speak that word, Pablo, because—ha ha I going leave you for guess why not. No—no—” She checked his motion towards her with a clash of her fan. “This is no time for kisses. I must think—”

“Think of everything—think for you as well as for me. You think I going run away with you for Mexico and have those Americans hunt, hunt us all over the country? Never, Pablo, never; we must fix it so no one ever going to know what become of the gringo. What you been do with his horse?”

“I turn it loose so they go think he has been thrown and go look all over desert for him.”

It was very good; with Sherwood’s horse running loose, probably trotting back to its stable at the smelter with an empty saddle, the search would be soon out after him. But Pablo’s mind was asía quicksand of suspicions and her only safety lay in speed and lightness.

“They can look one year out there on the desert,” she was saying. “Come, we go hide his body down the river, you and I. Then you stay here, make visit with my mother and father, sing and laugh—then, when those white men come look for him, you been here all the time with me—and they never go suspect m-e of ill to that man—ha ha ha.”

But, though she danced on it lightly as any will-o-thewisp, that quivering marsh of Pablo’s mind could support her no longer. His face, suddenly rat-like, warned her that she was losing.

Continued on page 36

The Song in the Desert

Continued from page 23

“I no stay here,” he broke sullenly in. “I no trust you; I no trust any woman.” “Not even me?” It was only her hand which pointed downwards to the form at her feet; she must not look, for once she did so there could be no more acting. “Not even after—that?”

“Not after nothing. You come with me now—or—”

Her ears were deafened by the roar of her own thoughts. Then.... but why the look of fear on Pablo’s face? A snarling pallor lay across it, a listening pallor, malignant with fear. Then footsteps— “Hello here—anybody about?”

That death which she had craved was plainly visible in Pablo’s_eyes now. But she was suddenly aware that death was not what she really wanted—not while Pablo still lived. Afterwards—nothing would matter then—

“If you make one sound—” he whispered.

With an instant’s motion he rolled Sherwood’s body under a bench against the wall. She had a terrible glimpse of its white face and inert, rolling arms. Then, stripping off his serape, Pablo flung it across the bench So that its edges hung down, concealing what was beneath it. A kick sent sand over the blood on the ground. The place was as always again, yet horribly different too, all the more sinister because its guilt was hidden under that gay covering.

Gripping her wrist he spoke again.

“You stay by me, I go hold you all the time. If that man come in here see that you speak Spanish to him. One word of that gringo tongue and you go get it— yes.”

A man came around the corner: A lank man, striding with the stiffness of the perpetual rider. An unkempt man,* seemingly casual, with a habit of looking at everything but that which he was really seeing. A man well known to the district as “Long” Green, one of the border riders of the state patrol.

He stopped, fingering his chin in awkward surprise as he saw the two in such intimate closeness.

“Well, if there ain’t Miss Antonia, and Pablo, too—howdy.”

“No gringo talk now,” came a muffled warning in her ear, and Antonia laughed back at Green. ’

“Buenas tardes, it is a long time since the señor come for Los Nietos.”

“Well, I don’t bother law-abiding people much,” he answered, taking the cue of her Spanish. “What’s Pablo there doing this side of the border in daylight?” “He came to see me.”

“To see you? Well—Pdon’t blame him much.”

“We go marry soon, Antonia and I,” Pablo put in with a silken smile.

“What—you two—marry?” Green’s

face betrayed itself in surprise. “Why, I thought that you and Jim—” He caught himself in time and substituted another ending. “By the way—have you seen anything of that young Jim Sherwood this afternoon?

“I found his horse awhile back, running loose with an empty saddle. I made sure he would be here.”

“That horse is bad hombre,” Pablo put lazily in. “Most like you will find that señor in some place by the road..”

“I’ll have to go look for him,” Green agreed, with an effect of gathering himself for departure. In another moment he would be gone—Antonia would _ have shrieked but. her throat seemed without power to make a sound. Was that really her room, behind that shutter there? Really the place she shared with her sister, now all strewn with the disarray of her dressing to receive the señor Jim? Then Green spoke in sudden English.

“See here, girl, is everything all right?” Pablo’s smile held, but at the sound of that tongue his fingers tightened about her wrist hidden by a fold of her skirt. There must be no hesitation; as if through a fog she heard her own surprised reply.

“Why, certainly—what should be wrong,eh?”

“Quien sabe?” Green threw off his half suspicion with a laugh. “Well, I’ll go hunt that Sherwood feller.”

“Ah, but for what do you then hurry?

In a little time maybe he will come walking in looking—oh—so mad.”

TT WAS terrible, this standing by like one A bound and gagged watching a brilliant spectre of herself laughing and acting there. But the play of false gaiety went on.,

“Come, sit down, señor. You will think that Los Nietos gives a poor welcome, yes. But—ah, well, I was just a bit excited— maybe. It is not every day that a girl makes the promise to marry—no.”

"That is why I thought it time I went,” Green laughed, and that strange girl which was herself laughed with him, turning a teasing glance upon the Mexican.

“That Pablo, he can wait—yes. He will think more of me if he is not too sure— eh, Pablo mio?”

Green was seating himself. With a gesture as loving as her own, Pablo whirled her about.

“Why you make this foolishness?” he snarled under his smile. “Why you not let him go?”

“Hush, can you hot see he suspected something? We must be gay, we must make him laugh, so he think all is right.”

“We not going to need no money, we two.” She continued. “We going to live on love, and all day long we sing and dance—•”

“Sing—dance”—all at once Ant onia was aware that somehow those were the words to which she had been feeling her way. But what of them? “Sing—dance”—with that load of grief hidden under the bench! Yet in some way she was being swept on to she hardly knew what.

“We will show you—yes. Come,

■Pablo—” Then, under her breath, for Pablo’s ear alone, “Come now, sing and dance with me—then he will go away sure that nothing is wrong.”

“I have one new dance,” she called tc Green. “One song the señor Sherwood taught to me. One of your American songs—yes; come, Pablo, I will sing it and we will dance it together, like I been show you little while ago.”

A last flare of sunset above walls sullen with shadows, the cottonwoods reaching upwards like accusing fingers pointing to the sky. Two figures, desperately gay, footing a dance; Antonia’s voice ringing out against the wind.

“She’s mah honey—mah huggy

v honey—”

MEANINGLESS words, set to music

almost brutal in its frank physicality. Silly words, but every here and there, like some scarlet thread of import woven into them, came one of terror. _

“She’s mah—dead—

Mah huggy hone y—l o o k—u n d cr

bench—

May ra-hag time gal—no speak—

Mah huggy honey—knife in hand—”

Pablo dragging his feet in careful time, his ears not noting the alien words. It was only one of those foolish gringo songs. He could not understand those words which ran through it, doubly sinister from their setting of smiles and shouted ‘ ‘j azz”— words like blood-stains on a ball gown— like death in a marionette show—

With grinning admiration Green listened, then rose, clapping applause.

“That’s fine. You’ll be able to take him to El Paso to do a vaudeville stunt in the Mexican theater there.”

He paused, his face folding up in an. enormous wink as he drew a flat bottle from his hip.

“A border rider sometimes has to seize contraband, you see. How about a little drink just to wish happiness to you two?” “I don’t want to drink,” Pablo muttered.

He had his reasons, two. of them; one the hand which must hold Antonia’s wrist, the other closed on the hilt of the knife whose blade was up his sleeve, and he mpst not let go for an instant of either. But Antonia’s free arm was about his neck, her laugh covering her quick whisper.

“Drink—yes, or he go suspect something.” Then she east a triumphant look at Green. “See, I got him good already. He make me one promise that he drink no more. But just this once, Pablo.”

She held the bottle out to him, gayly compelling.

“Come Pablo mio, this one going be your last.”

Continued on page 40

Continued from page 36

Pablo hesitated; he would have to let that knife hilt slide into his cuff as he raised his hand to take the bottle. But his grasp was still upon Antonia. He looked shrewdly at Green, but the rider stood there in grinning, loose jointed unsuspicion.

“We cannot make insult for the señor, Pablo?" Antonia warned.

HE TOOK the bottle, raising it to his lips with a ceremonious flourish. At that instant something hard, round, horribly hollow, was jammed into his stomach and Green's voice sounded in cracking command.

“Put ’em up—you damn' Greaser—” The bottle fell, the fumes of its spilled contents rising about them. But Green’s gaze never flickered from Pablo’s face, now yellowed over with a sickly pallor.

“Quick, girl—get that rope over there. Now begin at his ankles and just wind and wind it round him.”

Creeping greyness as the day died in a hush of falling wind. A writhing, trussed up thing spitting impotent eûmes. Green pulling aside the bench, kneeling at Sherwood's side, ripping ,the shirt from hi3 body. White skin, " stained with red; nerveless hands lying palm upwards; a cheek ominously pallid under bright hair. Antonia felt her fists beating on her bosom a3 she hovered there, waiting the verdict. How could that man be so long, so deliberately silent, how could bis hands be so cool and steady as they moved over that loved body? At last he spoke.

“A close call—but it missed.”

He looked up at her, his grey eyes holding a ghost of a twinkle.

“Of course I guess you ain’t much interested, since you are going to marry that Pablo over there. But all the same, this boy is going to live—it was just hitting his head that knocked him out, the cut ain’t so much, really.”

Her knees were giving away. She found herself, suddenly all herself again, flung by Sherwood’s side, kissing those upturned hands, pressing her lips to the unfeeling cheek.

“My love—my love—”