Chapter 12. A Clean White Man's Option
 

The light of a lantern coming down the steps blinded them for a moment. Behind the lantern peered the yellow face of the turnkey. "Ho, there, Americano! They want you up above," the man said. "The generals, and the colonels, and the captains want a little talk with you before they hang you, senor."

The two soldiers behind the fellow cackled merrily at his wit, and the encouraged turnkey tried again.

"We shall trouble you but a little time. Only a few questions, senor, an order, and then poco tiempo, after a short walk to the gallows--paradise."

"What--what do you mean?" gasped the girl whitely.

"Never mind, muchacho. This is no affair of yours. Your turn will come later. Have no fear of that," nodded the wrinkled old parchment face.

"But--but he hasn't done anything wrong."

"Ho, ho! Let him explain that to the generals and the colonels," croaked the old fellow. "And that you may explain the sooner, senor, hurry--let your feet fly!"

Bucky walked across to the girl he loved and took her hands in his.

"If I don't come back before three hours read the letter that I wrote you yesterday, dear. I have left matches on that bench so that you may have a light. Be brave, pardner. Don't lose your nerve, whatever you do. We'll both get out of this all right yet."

He spoke in a low voice, so that the guards might not hear, and it was in kind that she answered.

"I'm afraid, Bucky; afraid away down deep. You don't half believe yourself what you say. I can't stand it to be here alone and not know what's going on. They might be--be doing what that man said, and I not know anything about it till afterward." She broke down and began to sob. "Oh, I know I'm a dreadful little coward, but I can't be like you--and you heard what he said."

"Sho! What he says is nothing. I'm an American citizen, and I reckon that will carry us through all right. Uncle Sam has awful long arms, and these greasers know it. I'm expecting to come back here again, little pardner. But if I don't make it, I want you, just as soon as they turn you loose, to go straight to your father's ranch."

"Come! This won't do. Look alive, senor," the turnkey ordered, and to emphasize his words reached a hand forward to pluck away the sobbing lad. Bucky caught his wrist and tightened on it like a vise. "Hands off, here!" he commanded quietly.

The man gave a howl of pain and nursed his hand gingerly after it was released.

"Oh, Bucky, make him let me go, too," the girl wailed, clinging to his coat.

Gently he unfastened her fingers. "You know I would if I could, Curly; but it isn't my say-so."

And with that he was gone. Ashen-faced she watched him go, and as soon as the door had closed groped her way to the bench and sank down on it, her face covered with her hands. He was going to his death. Her lover was going to his death. Why had she let him go? Why had she not done something--thought of some way to save him?

The ranger's guards led him to the military headquarters in the next street from the prison. He observed that nearly a whole company of Rurales formed the escort, and this led him to conclude that the government party was very uneasy as to the situation and had taken precautions against a possible attempt at rescue. But no such attempt was made. The sunny streets were pretty well deserted, except for a few lounging peons hardly interested enough to be curious. The air of peace, of order, sat so incongruously over the plaza that Bucky's heart fell. Surely this was the last place on earth for a revolution to make any headway of consequence. His friends were hidden away in holes and cellars, while Megales dominated the situation with his troops. To expect a reversal of the situation was surely madness.

Yet even while the thought was in his mind he caught a glimpse in a doorway of a man he recognized. It was Rodrigo, one of his allies of the previous night's escapade, and it seemed to him that the man was trying to tell him something with his eyes. If so, the meaning of his message failed to carry home, for after the ranger had passed he dared not look back again.

So far as the trial itself went, O'Connor hoped for nothing and was the less disappointed. One glance at his judges was enough to convince him of the futility of expectation. He was tried by a court-martial presided over by General Carlo. Beside him sat a Colonel Onate and Lieutenant Chaves. In none of the three did he find any room for hope. Carlo was a hater of Americans and a butcher by temperament and choice, Chaves a personal enemy of the prisoner, and Onate looked as grim an old scoundrel as Jeffreys the hanging judge of James Stuart. Governor Megales, though not technically a member of the court, was present, and took an active part in the prosecution. He was a stout, swarthy little man, with black, beady eyes that snapped restlessly to and fro, and from his manner to the officers in charge of the trial it was plain that he was a despot even in his own official family.

The court did not trouble itself with forms of law. Chaves was both principal witness and judge, notwithstanding the protest of the prisoner. Yet what the lieutenant had to offer in the way of testimony was so tinctured with bitterness that it must have been plain to the veriest novice he was no fit judge of the case.

But Bucky knew as well as the judges that his trial was a merely perfunctory formality. The verdict was decided ere it began, and, indeed, so eager was Megales to get the farce over with that several times he interrupted the proceedings to urge haste.

It took them just fifteen minutes from the time the young American was brought into the room to find him guilty of treason and to decide upon immediate execution as the fitting punishment.

General Carlo turned to the prisoner. "Have you anything to say before I pronounce sentence of death upon you?"

"I have," answered Bucky, looking him straight in the eyes. "I am an American, and I demand the rights of a citizen of the United States."

"An American?" Incredulously Megales lifted his eyebrows. "You are a Spanish gypsy, my friend."

The ranger was fairly caught in his own trap. He had donned the gypsy masquerade because he did not want to be taken for what he was, and he had succeeded only too well. He had played into their hands. They would, of course, claim, in the event of trouble with the United States, that they had supposed him to be what his costume proclaimed him, and they would be able to make good their pretense with a very decent appearance of candor. What an idiot of sorts he had been!

"We understand each other perfectly, governor. I know and you know that I am an American. As a citizen of the United States I claim the protection of that flag. I demand that you will send immediately for the United States consul to this city."

Megales leaned forward with a thin, cruel smile on his face. "Very well, senor. Let it be as you say. Your friend, Senor O'Halloran, is the United States consul. I shall be very glad to send for him if you can tell me where to find him. Having business with him to-day, I have despatched messengers who have been unable to find him at home. But since you know where he is, and are in need of him, perhaps you can assist me with information of value."

Again Bucky was fairly caught. He had no reason to doubt that the governor spoke truth in saying that O'Halloran was the United States consul. There were in the city as permanent residents not more than three or four citizens of the United States. With the political instinct of the Irish, it would be very characteristic of O'Halloran to work his "pull" to secure for himself the appointment. That he had not happened to mention the fact to his friend could be accounted for by reason of the fact that the duties of the office at that place were few and unimportant.

"We are waiting, senor. If you will tell us where we may send?" hinted Megales.

"I do not know any more than you do, if he is not at home."

The governor's eyes glittered. "Take care, senor. Better sharpen your memory."

"It's pretty hard to remember what one never knew," retorted the prisoner.

The Mexican tyrant brought his clinched fist slowly down on the table in front of him. "It is necessary to remember, sir. It is necessary to answer a few questions. If you answer them to our satisfaction you may yet save your life."

"Indeed!" Bucky swept his fat bulk scornfully from head to foot. "If I were what you think me, do you suppose I would betray my friends?"

"You have no option, sir. Answer my questions, or die like a dog."

"You mean that you would not think you had any option if you were in my place, but since I'm a clean white man there's an option. By God! sir, it doesn't take me a whole lot of time to make it, either. I'll see you rot in hell before I'll play Judas."

The words rang like a bell through the room, not loud, but clear and vibrant. There was a long instant's silence after the American finished speaking, and as his eyes swept from one to another of the enemy Bucky met with a surprise. On Colonel Onate's face was a haggard look of fear--surely it was fear--that lifted in relief at the young man's brave challenge. He had been dreading something, and the dread was lifted. Onate! Onate! The ranger's memory searched the past few days to locate the name. Had O'Halloran mentioned it? Was this man one of the officers expected to join the opposition when it declared itself against Megales? He had a vague recollection of the name, and he could have heard it only through his friend.

"Was Juan Valdez a member of the party that took the rifles from Lieutenant Chaves and his escort?"

Bucky laughed out his contempt.

"Speak, sir," broke in Chaves. "Answer the governor, you dog."

"If I speak, it will be to tell you what a cur I think you."

Chaves flushed angrily and laid a hand on his revolver. "Who are you that play dice with death, like a fool?"

"My name, seh, is Bucky O'Connor."

At the words a certain fear, followed by a look of triumph, passed over the face of Chaves. It was as if he had had an unpleasant shock that had instantly proved groundless. Bucky did not at the time understand it.

"Why don't you shoot? It's about your size, you pinhead, to kill an unarmed man."

"Tell all you know and I promise you your life." It was Megales who spoke.

"I'll tell you nothing, except that I'm Bucky O'Connor, of the Arizona Rangers. Chew on that a while, governor, and see how it tastes. Kill me, and Uncle Sam is liable to ask mighty loud whyfor; not because I'm such a mighty big toad in the puddle, but because any man that stands under that flag has back of him the biggest, best, and gamest country on God's green footstool." Bucky spoke in English this time, straight as he could send it.

"In that case, I think sentence may now be pronounced, general."

"I warn you that the United States will exact vengeance for my death."

"Indeed!" Politely the governor smiled at him with a malice almost devilish. "If so, it will be after you are dead, Senor Bucky O'Connor, of the Arizona Rangers."

Colonel Onate leaned forward and whispered something to General Carlo, who shook his head and frowned. Presently the black head of Chaves joined them, and the three were in excited discussion. Arms waved like signals, as is usual among the Latin races who talk with their hands and expressive shrugs of the shoulders. Outvoted by two to one, Onate appealed to the governor, who came up and listened, frowning, to both sides of the debate. In their excitement the voices raised, and to Bucky came snatches of phrases that told him his life hung in the balance. Carlo and Chaves were for having him executed out of hand, at latest, by sunset. The latter was especially vindictive. Indeed, it seemed to the ranger that ever since he had mentioned his name this man had set himself more malevolently to compass his death. Onate maintained, on the other hand, that their prisoner was worth more to them alive than dead. There was a chance that he might weaken before morning and tell secrets. At worst they would still have his life as a card to hold in case of need over the head of the rebels. If it should turn out that this was not needed, he could be executed in the morning as well as to-night.

It may be conceived with what anxiety Bucky listened to the whispered conversation and waited for the decision of the governor. He was a game man, noted even in a country famous for its courageous citizens, but he felt strangely weak now as he waited with that leather-crusted face of his bereft of all expression.

"Give him till morning to weaken. If he still stays obstinate, hang him in the dawn," decided the governor, his beady eyes fixed on the prisoner.

Not a flicker of the eyelid betrayed the Arizonian's emotion, but for an instant the world swam dizzily before him. Safe till morning! Before then a hundred chances might change the current of the game in his favor. How brightly the sunshine flooded the room! What a glorious world it was, after all! Through the open window poured the rich, full-throated song of a meadow lark, and the burden of its blithe song was, "How good is this life the mere living."