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Golden Fleece JUNE 1939, Vol. 2 No. 6

Guardian Devil

by JOHNSTON McCULLEY

CHAPTER I

FROM the comer of his eye, Dan O'Dowd caught sight of the mysterious shadow, saw it flit through the bright moonlight and drift along the adobe wall. All other shadows in the vicinity were stationary. A moving shadow in their midst meant something alive, something furtive and skulking trying to pass unseen.

Dan came to an abrupt stop. He drew back into a streak of darkness against the wall. Except for that shadow, everything seemed normal. Moonlight filtered through the treetops. The aroma of blossoms permeated the air. Somewhere a guitar strummed in serenade.

Dan's alert eyes saw the shadow drift slowly along the wall and straight toward him. Suddenly other shadows appeared at the mouth of the narrow street, half a dozen of them. They darted from side to side, plainly searching.

"Sombreros!" thought Dan. "Heathen sombreros, 'stead of honest coonskin caps! Mexicans! And no help for me this side of the pack train yard." He drew his knife half out of its leather sheath. Perhaps this was none of his affair, but he would be ready.

IT PAID to be ready for trouble always in this town of Santa Fé, with the Mexicans and Yanquis always at one another's throats, and renegades eager to get at the throats of either.

Since the country had been explored and named New Spain, and the town of Santa Fé founded in the shadows of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, long pack trains had traveled up to it from Mexico, from Chihuahua and Guadalajara, bringing their wares and taking generous profits.

Then the Americans had come to dispute the monopoly of trade, following the long trail from Independence, over plains and mountains, past Bent's Fort, to old Taos and Santa Fé.

Hard fighting men who would be denied nothing they desired, they came with their long trains of Conestoga wagons and pack animals loaded with trade goods, and brought with them a canny skill in bargaining. In buckskin clothes and coonskin caps, they traded and fought, drank white whisky and gambled, holding life cheaply. They howled their song about a certain Yankee Doodle, and so became known as "Yanquis."

There was serious trouble from the start. Competition in trade caused hard feeling and continual political intrigue, with a new man likely to sit in the Governor's chair any morning.

With Mexico in constant turmoil inwardly, and also having trouble with the rebellious Texans, nobody could say just what was the political complexion of Santa Fé, so the Yanquis often thrust the Mexicans aside, saying this was any man's land, though at the moment Don Marcos Vega ruled it as alcalde and took what bribe money he could.

There was trouble because of women—women with soft brown skins, flat calves, broad hips, full bosoms, luring black eyes, and no morals at all. They paraded in bright skirts, their arms loaded with silver bracelets, rings in their ears and flashing ornaments in their black hair. A horde of them appeared at every baile, where the usual bars of convention were lowered, and they liked the boisterous, generous Yanquis.

But no wise Yanqui traveled around the narrow streets of Santa Fé alone after sundown in the early 1830s. Knives had been sharpened for him and intrigues woven for his downfall....

DAN O'DOWD saw the first shadow he had noticed leave the patch of darkness and glide toward him. The other shadows came swiftly after. The leading one tripped, fell, sprawled. From the pursuit came exclamations of victory, but the quarry was up again and running. A scream of fear rang through the night.

"By the eternal! It's a woman!" Dan growled.

He sprang out into the moonlight with a bellow of rage. Six men trying to run down a woman like dogs a deer was something Dan O'Dowd could not stomach.

Past him darted a girl whose labored breathing he could hear, whose frightened wide eyes gleamed fearfully an instant in the moonlight. Just beyond him, she tripped and fell again, and crouched exhausted against the wall. Dan with a roar of challenge rushed to meet the enemy with ready fists that thudded sickeningly into human faces. Back against the wall, he fought like a wild man, knowing he could expect a knife between bis ribs if he fell.

His coonskin cap knocked off, his shock of flaming red hair seemed to bristle in the moonlight. He charged madly and smote again. He skinned his knuckles on a chin-then felt a streak of fire along his left forearm and caught the gleam of a blade.

More knives flashed as his foes crowded in for the kill. Dan O'Dowd grasped a brown wrist and snapped it across his knee, smashed his fist into another leering face. Two men had been knocked down and were trying to get to their feet. The one with the broken wrist was sneaking away. The other three decided they had enough and fled, howling for help against the murderous Yanqui. Dan had been fortunate that his antagonists were not good fighting men. Peon scum and tavern loungers, he thought.

HE PICKED up his coonskin cap and put it on. The cut on his forearm amounted to nothing, he found. A whimper sounded at his side. The girl had left the darkness by the wall to approach him timidly.

"You saved me, señor," she whimpered, and covered his hand with tears and kisses.

"None of that's necessary," Dan told her, drawing his hand away. "You're safe now. Better run along."

He noticed her unusually pleasant voice, low and rich and throaty. She lifted a pretty face in the moonlight. A gracefully slender form was draped with a single inadequate garment. Her wrists were without ornaments, and her feet and legs bare. A halfbreed, Dan judged.

"I am Anita, and my father's name is Juan," she said. "We will be your slaves for what you have done tonight."

"Who were those men, and why were they after you?" O'Dowd asked.

"I think they were sent by another to steal me, Yanqui. I escaped them once, but they ran after me again. I heard one mention señor Carlos Martinez."

"You mean the rich trader?"

"Si, señor! Several times I have noticed him watching me in the market place where I work, and have tried to avoid him. I've heard he is an evil man, though handsome and rich."

O'Dowd looked at her skeptically. Most girls of her sort were eager to attract the attention of a man rich and handsome. But this girl seemed sincere in what she said.

"Carlos Martinez is scum, and you'll do well to keep out of his sight," he told the girl.

Here was a mess. Martinez, noted for his hatred of all Yanquis because they had cut into his monopoly of trade, probably would desire a terrible revenge on the man who had prevented his hirelings from stealing the girl.

"Get along to your hut," O'Dowd told her. "Don't be runnin' around the streets nights and makin' honest men fight your battles. Get to your home before there's more trouble."

But at that instant more trouble came,—from both ends of the street, and Dan found himself in a trap.

On either side was a high wall with a house behind it, neither to be scaled readily. Into the upper end of the street rushed men howling threats against all Yanquis. Into the lower end came one of his recent antagonists making loud complaint, and with him some of the alcalde's civil guards.

The girl began whimpering again. O'Dowd bade her be still. He seized and tossed her to the top of the wall, where she could stretch out in the darkness and not be seen.

Then he turned to the fray. He decided it would be wisest to attack the alcalde's guards and try to win through. Keeping to the darkness as much as possible, he charged at them. A blow from a hickory club missed his head by scant inches, but struck his left shoulder and numbed it. He whipped out his knife and slashed. He knew' defeat meant either a violent death in the street, or incarceration in the carcel, and punishment after a mockery of a trial, but in no case justice.

The eyes of the guards glittered in the moonlight, their dark forms danced around in front of him as they prepared for another rush.

"Come on, scum!" O'Dowd howled.

They came, to crash against and overwhelm him. His knife was torn from his grasp. A club cracked against the back of his head. He reeled as a cascade of red flashes darted before his eyes. He sank into oblivion so swiftly that he scarcely felt the second blow, which stretched him senseless on the ground.

CHAPTER II

WHEN O'Dowd opened his eyes, it was to darkness relieved only by a faint streak of yellowish light which came from a distance. Pains shot through his head and down into his neck. His shoulder ached and he was tortured by thirst.

He sat up with difficulty, his senses swimming. He realized he had been sprawled on cold, damp stone. Pressing against the wall, he got on his feet, reeled and almost fell, had a moment of nausea, then gathered strength and managed to stand erect.

Leaning against the slimy masonry, he focused his eyes on the distant gleam of yellowish light. Between he could see bars.

So he was in the carcel. The alcalde's guards had not knifed a Yanqui when they had a chance. O'Dowd did not like the situation, perhaps he had been spared for something worse. Perhaps against a wall at sunrise....

The yellowish light outside the door grew stronger, and he heard voices and the thump of boots on the hard floor. A ragged peon appeared in the corridor, holding aloft a reeking torch.

"Fetch water, you!" O'Dowd barked at him. "Decent water to drink. Some white whisky, if you can get it. I'll pay well."

At the peon's sarcastic grin, he realized he could pay nothing. His clothing was torn and disarranged from more than fighting, the tail of his buckskin shirt flapped outside his pants. His money belt was gone.

"Come closer," he said to the peon.

But the peon remained where he stood, and spat at him. O'Dowd frowned alike at the indignity and the significance of the act. The peon evidently had no fear that this Yanqui prisoner ever could punish him for the insult.

"When I get my hands on you—!" O'Dowd threatened.

"But you'll never get hands on me. señor," the peon said.

"You expect to have the fun of watchin' the firin' squad do their work at sunrise?"

"Not so, Yanqui. I have heard Don Marcos Vega, the alcalde, whose servant I am, say it accomplishes nothing to shoot Yanquis. They grin when they face the squad, and take their silly pride with them to hell, and that makes them heroes to other men. But no man is a hero when he is whipped."

"Whipped?" Dan roared.

"The lash breaks the spirit of the strongest. The guards could have slain you, but had orders to take Yanquis alive. There will be a special fiesta, and you will be tied to a post in the market place, with your back bared for the lash. Peons are to whip you while the people watch, and no man can be a hero when that happens to him."

O'DOWD, close to the barred door, saw a robed Franciscan approaching down the corridor, the arrogant Don Marcos Vega beside him and two armed guards behind.

Don Marcos glared through the bars. "Accursed Yanqui—"

O'Dowd promptly interrupted. He had learned long before that a sloop can be slowed by taking the wind out of its sails.

"What's the meanin' of this outrage?" he demanded. "You rule here in Santa Fé, I understand, Don Marcos Vega, so I'm holdin' you responsible."

Don Marcos was taken aback. He never could understand these Yanquis, who seemed to have no awe of those in high places.

"Outrage? You hold me responsible—you?" Don Marcos blustered. "The effrontery!"

"I was attacked in the street and had to fight for my life," O'Dowd said. "Your guards smashed me and tossed me in here. Now, I suppose you've come to tell me that I've robbed and murdered somebody and am goin' to be shot for it. If that's it, Don Marcos Vega, make your speech short and rid me of your presence. There's stench enough here already."

"Silence!" Don Marcos thundered. His face was aflame, and his voice echoed down the corridor and frightened the rats. But he fought back his rage and stepped nearer the door, his manner judicial. "You were incarcerated for brawling in the street—"

"Self defense," O'Dowd interrupted.

"—and, in the fighting, some of my guards were knifed. Before that, I understand, you were in another brawl—"

"Six men were tryin' to run down a girl—"

"That the brawl was about a wench only makes your offense more reprehensible. Are wenches so scarce in Santa Fé that men must fight over one? I have decreed that all Yanqui brawlers be flogged publicly. Just now you may escape the flogging you deserve and have pardon and freedom—-in return for a service."

"It's probably somethin' too dirty for your own guards to handle," O'Dowd said.

"Will you be silent?" Don Marcos bellowed. "It is a waste of time for me to talk to you. Possibly you'll be courteous enough to listen to the fray here."

He glared, then turned and stalked away haughtily. The guards remained, bodies stiff and faces inscrutable.

THE fray raised his head, took the torch from the peon's hand to hold it himself, and motioned him to retire out of earshot.

"Now, my son, we can talk," he said. "I happen to know your name and reputation, and can guess at the sad state of your soul. I am Fray Sebastiano."

Leaning against the bars, O'Dowd looked with genuine interest at the tall and lanky form. The worn, clinging robe could not conceal that his body was terribly emaciated. His face was grayish and cadaverous, with hollow cheeks and deep-set burning eyes. In age he was more than sixty, but retained surprising strength and agility.

Fray Sebastiano stepped closer and spoke in low tones.

"Fear nothing, my son. Your defense of that poor girl was witnessed, also the fighting which followed. A certain man of influence has sent a request to the alcalde that you be spared punishment and given freedom for a certain purpose."

"What purpose?" O'Dowd asked.

"That is not for me to tell you. I am here to take you to another, who'll explain. The service is of the proper sort, else I'd not be concerned in it. You will do well to agree immediately without asking questions."

"I agree," Dan said.

Fray Sebastiano beckoned one of the guards, and the door of the cell was opened. O'Dowd stepped into the corridor. Beside the fray, he walked along the corridor and up a flight of steps, to the private quarters of the alcalde.

"Go into the room adjoining," Don Marcos said. "Clean the blood from your hands and face and doctor your bruises. Try to make yourself presentable for decent company."

Dan bathed his head in cool water and drank deeply, doctoring his bruises and removing the stains of battle as well as he could. Back in the other room again, he was startled when Don Marcos returned his money belt with the contents intact, and also his knife.

"Now, señor, you are free to leave with Fray Sebastiano," Don Marcos said. "You may consider yourself fortunate. If you become my official guest again—!" He concluded the speech with an eloquent wave of his hand.

THEN Dan found himself out in the fresh air with Fray Sebastiano. They plodded along in the moonlight. Loud talk and roaring laughter came down wind from the pack train yard, where O'Dowd's comrades drank and sang wild songs. There was a din in the distant plaza, thronged now with a motley collection of Yanquis and Mexicans, Indians and breeds, where almost every glance was an invitation to trouble.

Men were bawling down by the big public corral, over which hung a pall of dust day and night, churned up by countless hoofs of horses and mules, and where horse traders were always busy.

Fray Sebastiano said nothing of their destination or purpose, and O'Dowd began to wonder. Some powerful influence must have worked on Don Marcos Vega, he knew, to compel him to release a Yanqui prisoner and return what had been taken from him.

"Where are we headin' for?" he asked, as they turned into a narrow street and carefully walked as far as possible from the shadows along the walls.

"We go to the casa of Don Pedro Estrada."

"What?" Dan was surprised. Don Pedro Estrada was a wealthy and aristocratic hidalgo, the cream of the cream.

"Your fight occurred outside the wall of his house, and with me Don Pedro witnessed it," Fray Sebastiano explained. "We expected to see you killed. The girl got away safely."

"What does Don Pedro want with me?" O'Dowd asked.

"He will explain that himself. You will do well to accept whatever commission he offers you, for it will occupy your time in good work—of which you probably do little—and also be profitable."

They walked on in silence for a time. "We're bein' followed," Dan suddenly said, in a low voice. "There's been a shadow dodgin' around behind us for some time."

"That's to be expected, my son. Some persons have a huge amount of curiosity," Fray Sebastiano replied.

CHAPTER III

AT THE patio gate of Don Pedro Estrada's casa, Fray Sebastiano signaled with the heavy knocker. A small aperture opened, an eye gleamed at them, and they were admitted.

They entered a moon-drenched patio where flowers bloomed and water trickled from a fountain. Here was a different world, one of wealth and station. Dan had heard that the rich furnishings of the Estrada house had been brought from Old Spain and up through Mexico at enormous expense.

Santa Fé, the raw frontier community, seemed a strange place for a wealthy hidalgo like Don Pedro Estrada, among few of his own kind. He had come there years before with a young wife and infant daughter. A widower now, he still had his daughter, Glorietta, a gorgeous beauty seldom seen in public.

Fray Sebastiano led the way along a curving walk and across the patio, to a side door of the house. Don Pedro Estrada greeted them—a tall, dignified man with silvery hair reaching almost to his shoulders. His erect body and flashing eyes conveyed a consciousness of authority, and his voice was startling in its resonance.

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