Infomotions, Inc.The Rustlers of Pecos County / Grey, Zane, 1872-1939



Author: Grey, Zane, 1872-1939
Title: The Rustlers of Pecos County
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): sampson; russ; linrock; miss sampson; steele; sally; wright; diane; ranger; diane sampson; vaughn steele; sally langdon; jack blome; gun; miss sampson's
Contributor(s): Greenaway, Kate, 1846-1901 [Illustrator]
Versions: original; local mirror; HTML (this file); printable
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Rights: GNU General Public License
Size: 74,626 words (short) Grade range: 6-7 (grade school) Readability score: 76 (easy)
Identifier: etext15580
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Title: The Rustlers of Pecos County


Author: Zane Grey

Release Date: April 8, 2005  [eBook #15580]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ISO-646-US (US-ASCII)


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                      THE RUSTLERS OF PECOS COUNTY

                              By Zane Grey

                                  1914




Chapter 1

VAUGHN STEELE AND RUSS SITTELL


In the morning, after breakfasting early, I took a turn up and down the
main street of Sanderson, made observations and got information likely
to serve me at some future day, and then I returned to the hotel ready
for what might happen.

The stage-coach was there and already full of passengers. This stage did
not go to Linrock, but I had found that another one left for that point
three days a week.

Several cowboy broncos stood hitched to a railing and a little farther
down were two buckboards, with horses that took my eye. These probably
were the teams Colonel Sampson had spoken of to George Wright.

As I strolled up, both men came out of the hotel. Wright saw me, and
making an almost imperceptible sign to Sampson, he walked toward me.

"You're the cowboy Russ?" he asked.

I nodded and looked him over. By day he made as striking a figure as I
had noted by night, but the light was not generous to his dark face.

"Here's your pay," he said, handing me some bills. "Miss Sampson won't
need you out at the ranch any more."

"What do you mean? This is the first I've heard about that."

"Sorry, kid. That's it," he said abruptly. "She just gave me the
money--told me to pay you off. You needn't bother to speak with her
about it."

He might as well have said, just as politely, that my seeing her, even
to say good-by, was undesirable.

As my luck would have it, the girls appeared at the moment, and I went
directly up to them, to be greeted in a manner I was glad George Wright
could not help but see.

In Miss Sampson's smile and "Good morning, Russ," there was not the
slightest discoverable sign that I was not to serve her indefinitely.

It was as I had expected--she knew nothing of Wright's discharging me in
her name.

"Miss Sampson," I said, in dismay, "what have I done? Why did you let me
go?"

She looked astonished.

"Russ, I don't understand you."

"Why did you discharge me?" I went on, trying to look heart-broken. "I
haven't had a chance yet. I wanted so much to work for you--Miss Sally,
what have I done? Why did she discharge me?"

"I did not," declared Miss Sampson, her dark eyes lighting.

"But look here--here's my pay," I went on, exhibiting the money. "Mr.
Wright just came to me--said you sent this money--that you wouldn't need
me out at the ranch."

It was Miss Sally then who uttered a little exclamation. Miss Sampson
seemed scarcely to have believed what she had heard.

"My cousin Mr. Wright said that?"

I nodded vehemently.

At this juncture Wright strode before me, practically thrusting me
aside.

"Come girls, let's walk a little before we start," he said gaily. "I'll
show you Sanderson."

"Wait, please," Miss Sampson replied, looking directly at him. "Cousin
George, I think there's a mistake--perhaps a misunderstanding. Here's
the cowboy I've engaged--Mr. Russ. He declares you gave him money--told
him I discharged him."

"Yes, cousin, I did," he replied, his voice rising a little. There was
a tinge of red in his cheek. "We--you don't need him out at the ranch.
We've any numbers of boys. I just told him that--let him down
easy--didn't want to bother you."

Certain it was that George Wright had made a poor reckoning. First she
showed utter amaze, then distinct disappointment, and then she lifted
her head with a kind of haughty grace. She would have addressed him
then, had not Colonel Sampson come up.

"Papa, did you instruct Cousin George to discharge Russ?" she asked.

"I sure didn't," declared the colonel, with a laugh. "George took that
upon his own hands."

"Indeed! I'd like my cousin to understand that I'm my own mistress. I've
been accustomed to attending to my own affairs and shall continue doing
so. Russ, I'm sorry you've been treated this way. Please, in future,
take your orders from me."

"Then I'm to go to Linrock with you?" I asked.

"Assuredly. Ride with Sally and me to-day, please."

She turned away with Sally, and they walked toward the first buckboard.

Colonel Sampson found a grim enjoyment in Wright's discomfiture.

"Diane's like her mother was, George," he said. "You've made a bad start
with her."

Here Wright showed manifestation of the Sampson temper, and I took him
to be a dangerous man, with unbridled passions.

"Russ, here's my own talk to you," he said, hard and dark, leaning
toward me. "Don't go to Linrock."

"Say, Mr. Wright," I blustered for all the world like a young and
frightened cowboy, "If you threaten me I'll have you put in jail!"

Both men seemed to have received a slight shock. Wright hardly knew what
to make of my boyish speech. "Are you going to Linrock?" he asked
thickly.

I eyed him with an entirely different glance from my other fearful one.

"I should smile," was my reply, as caustic as the most reckless
cowboy's, and I saw him shake.

Colonel Sampson laid a restraining hand upon Wright. Then they both
regarded me with undisguised interest. I sauntered away.

"George, your temper'll do for you some day," I heard the colonel say.
"You'll get in bad with the wrong man some time. Hello, here are Joe and
Brick!"

Mention of these fellows engaged my attention once more.

I saw two cowboys, one evidently getting his name from his brick-red
hair. They were the roistering type, hard drinkers, devil-may-care
fellows, packing guns and wearing bold fronts--a kind that the Rangers
always called four-flushes.

However, as the Rangers' standard of nerve was high, there was room left
for cowboys like these to be dangerous to ordinary men.

The little one was Joe, and directly Wright spoke to him he turned to
look at me, and his thin mouth slanted down as he looked. Brick eyed me,
too, and I saw that he was heavy, not a hard-riding cowboy.

Here right at the start were three enemies for me--Wright and his
cowboys. But it did not matter; under any circumstances there would have
been friction between such men and me.

I believed there might have been friction right then had not Miss
Sampson called for me.

"Get our baggage, Russ," she said.

I hurried to comply, and when I had fetched it out Wright and the
cowboys had mounted their horses, Colonel Sampson was in the one
buckboard with two men I had not before observed, and the girls were
in the other.

The driver of this one was a tall, lanky, tow-headed youth, growing like
a Texas weed. We had not any too much room in the buckboard, but that
fact was not going to spoil the ride for me.

We followed the leaders through the main street, out into the open,
on to a wide, hard-packed road, showing years of travel. It headed
northwest.

To our left rose the range of low, bleak mountains I had noted
yesterday, and to our right sloped the mesquite-patched sweep of ridge
and flat.

The driver pushed his team to a fast trot, which gait surely covered
ground rapidly. We were close behind Colonel Sampson, who, from his
vehement gestures, must have been engaged in very earnest colloquy with
his companions.

The girls behind me, now that they were nearing the end of the journey,
manifested less interest in the ride, and were speculating upon Linrock,
and what it would be like. Occasionally I asked the driver a question,
and sometimes the girls did likewise; but, to my disappointment, the
ride seemed not to be the same as that of yesterday.

Every half mile or so we passed a ranch house, and as we traveled on
these ranches grew further apart, until, twelve or fifteen miles out of
Sanderson, they were so widely separated that each appeared alone on the
wild range.

We came to a stream that ran north and I was surprised to see a goodly
volume of water. It evidently flowed down from the mountain far to the
west.

Tufts of grass were well scattered over the sandy ground, but it was
high and thick, and considering the immense area in sight, there was
grazing for a million head of stock.

We made three stops in the forenoon, one at a likely place to water the
horses, the second at a chuckwagon belonging to cowboys who were riding
after stock, and the third at a small cluster of adobe and stone houses,
constituting a hamlet the driver called Sampson, named after the
Colonel. From that point on to Linrock there were only a few ranches,
each one controlling great acreage.

Early in the afternoon from a ridgetop we sighted Linrock, a green path
in the mass of gray. For the barrens of Texas it was indeed a fair
sight.

But I was more concerned with its remoteness from civilization than its
beauty. At that time in the early 'seventies, when the vast western
third of Texas was a wilderness, the pioneer had done wonders to settle
there and establish places like Linrock.

As we rolled swiftly along, the whole sweeping range was dotted with
cattle, and farther on, within a few miles of town, there were droves
of horses that brought enthusiastic praise from Miss Sampson and her
cousin.

"Plenty of room here for the long rides," I said, waving a hand at the
gray-green expanse. "Your horses won't suffer on this range."

She was delighted, and her cousin for once seemed speechless.

"That's the ranch," said the driver, pointing with his whip.

It needed only a glance for me to see that Colonel Sampson's ranch was
on a scale fitting the country.

The house was situated on the only elevation around Linrock, and it was
not high, nor more than a few minutes' walk from the edge of town.

It was a low, flat-roofed structure, made of red adobe bricks and
covered what appeared to be fully an acre of ground. All was green about
it except where the fenced corrals and numerous barns or sheds showed
gray and red.

Wright and the cowboys disappeared ahead of us in the cottonwood trees.
Colonel Sampson got out of the buckboard and waited for us. His face
wore the best expression I had seen upon it yet. There was warmth and
love, and something that approached sorrow or regret.

His daughter was agitated, too. I got out and offered my seat, which
Colonel Sampson took.

It was scarcely a time for me to be required, or even noticed at all,
and I took advantage of it and turned toward the town.

Ten minutes of leisurely walking brought me to the shady outskirts of
Linrock and I entered the town with mingled feelings of curiosity,
eagerness, and expectation.

The street I walked down was not a main one. There were small, red
houses among oaks and cottonwoods.

I went clear through to the other side, probably more than half a mile.
I crossed a number of intersecting streets, met children, nice-looking
women, and more than one dusty-booted man.

Half-way back this street I turned at right angles and walked up several
blocks till I came to a tree-bordered plaza. On the far side opened a
broad street which for all its horses and people had a sleepy look.

I walked on, alert, trying to take in everything, wondering if I would
meet Steele, wondering how I would know him if we did meet. But I
believed I could have picked that Ranger out of a thousand strangers,
though I had never seen him.

Presently the residences gave place to buildings fronting right upon the
stone sidewalk. I passed a grain store, a hardware store, a grocery
store, then several unoccupied buildings and a vacant corner.

The next block, aside from the rough fronts of the crude structures,
would have done credit to a small town even in eastern Texas. Here was
evidence of business consistent with any prosperous community of two
thousand inhabitants.

The next block, on both sides of the street, was a solid row of saloons,
resorts, hotels. Saddled horses stood hitched all along the sidewalk in
two long lines, with a buckboard and team here and there breaking the
continuity. This block was busy and noisy.

From all outside appearances, Linrock was no different from other
frontier towns, and my expectations were scarcely realized.

As the afternoon was waning I retraced my steps and returned to the
ranch. The driver boy, whom I had heard called Dick, was looking for
me, evidently at Miss Sampson's order, and he led me up to the house.

It was even bigger than I had conceived from a distance, and so old that
the adobe bricks were worn smooth by rain and wind. I had a glimpse in
at several doors as we passed by.

There was comfort here that spoke eloquently of many a freighter's trip
from Del Rio. For the sake of the young ladies, I was glad to see things
little short of luxurious for that part of the country.

At the far end of the house Dick conducted me to a little room, very
satisfactory indeed to me. I asked about bunk-houses for the cowboys,
and he said they were full to overflowing.

"Colonel Sampson has a big outfit, eh?"

"Reckon he has," replied Dick. "Don' know how many cowboys. They're
always comin' an' goin'. I ain't acquainted with half of them."

"Much movement of stock these days?"

"Stock's always movin'," he replied with a queer look.

"Rustlers?"

But he did not follow up that look with the affirmative I expected.

"Lively place, I hear--Linrock is?"

"Ain't so lively as Sanderson, but it's bigger."

"Yes, I heard it was. Fellow down there was talking about two cowboys
who were arrested."

"Sure. I heerd all about thet. Joe Bean an' Brick Higgins--they belong
heah, but they ain't heah much."

I did not want Dick to think me overinquisitive, so I turned the talk
into other channels. It appeared that Miss Sampson had not left any
instructions for me, so I was glad to go with Dick to supper, which we
had in the kitchen.

Dick informed me that the cowboys prepared their own meals down at the
bunks; and as I had been given a room at the ranch-house he supposed I
would get my meals there, too.

After supper I walked all over the grounds, had a look at the horses in
the corrals, and came to the conclusion that it would be strange if Miss
Sampson did not love her new home, and if her cousin did not enjoy her
sojourn there. From a distance I saw the girls approaching with Wright,
and not wishing to meet them I sheered off.

When the sun had set I went down to the town with the intention of
finding Steele.

This task, considering I dared not make inquiries and must approach him
secretly, might turn out to be anything but easy.

While it was still light, I strolled up and down the main street. When
darkness set in I went into a hotel, bought cigars, sat around and
watched, without any clue.

Then I went into the next place. This was of a rough crude exterior, but
the inside was comparatively pretentious, and ablaze with lights.

It was full of men, coming and going--a dusty-booted crowd that smelled
of horses and smoke.

I sat down for a while, with wide eyes and open ears. Then I hunted up a
saloon, where most of the guests had been or were going. I found a great
square room lighted by six huge lamps, a bar at one side, and all the
floor space taken up by tables and chairs.

This must have been the gambling resort mentioned in the Ranger's letter
to Captain Neal and the one rumored to be owned by the mayor of Linrock.
This was the only gambling place of any size in southern Texas in which
I had noted the absence of Mexicans. There was some card playing going
on at this moment.

I stayed in there for a while, and knew that strangers were too common
in Linrock to be conspicuous. But I saw no man whom I could have taken
for Steele.

Then I went out.

It had often been a boast of mine that I could not spend an hour in
a strange town, or walk a block along a dark street, without having
something happen out of the ordinary.

Mine was an experiencing nature. Some people called this luck. But it
was my private opinion that things gravitated my way because I looked
and listened for them.

However, upon the occasion of my first day and evening in Linrock it
appeared, despite my vigilance and inquisitiveness, that here was to be
an exception.

This thought came to me just before I reached the last lighted place in
the block, a little dingy restaurant, out of which at the moment, a
tall, dark form passed. It disappeared in the gloom. I saw a man sitting
on the low steps, and another standing in the door.

"That was the fellow the whole town's talkin' about--the Ranger," said
one man.

Like a shot I halted in the shadow, where I had not been seen.

"Sho! Ain't boardin' heah, is he?" said the other.

"Yes."

"Reckon he'll hurt your business, Jim."

The fellow called Jim emitted a mirthless laugh. "Wal, he's been _all_
my business these days. An' he's offered to rent that old 'dobe of mine
just out of town. You know, where I lived before movin' in heah. He's
goin' to look at it to-morrow."

"Lord! does he expect to _stay_?"

"Say so. An' if he ain't a stayer I never seen none. Nice, quiet, easy
chap, but he just looks deep."

"Aw, Jim, he can't hang out heah. He's after some feller, that's all."

"I don't know his game. But he says he was heah for a while. An' he
impressed me some. Just now he says: 'Where does Sampson live?' I asked
him if he was goin' to make a call on our mayor, an' he says yes. Then I
told him how to go out to the ranch. He went out, headed that way."

"The hell he did!"

I gathered from this fellow's exclamation that he was divided between
amaze and mirth. Then he got up from the steps and went into the
restaurant and was followed by the man called Jim. Before the door
was closed he made another remark, but it was unintelligible to me.

As I passed on I decided I would scrape acquaintance with this
restaurant keeper.

The thing of most moment was that I had gotten track of Steele. I
hurried ahead. While I had been listening back there moments had elapsed
and evidently he had walked swiftly.

I came to the plaza, crossed it, and then did not know which direction
to take. Concluding that it did not matter I hurried on in an endeavor
to reach the ranch before Steele. Although I was not sure, I believed I
had succeeded.

The moon shone brightly. I heard a banjo in the distance and a cowboy
sing. There was not a person in sight in the wide courts or on the
porch. I did not have a well-defined idea about the inside of the house.

Peeping in at the first lighted window I saw a large room. Miss Sampson
and Sally were there alone. Evidently this was a parlor or a sitting
room, and it had clean white walls, a blanketed floor, an open fireplace
with a cheery blazing log, and a large table upon which were lamp,
books, papers. Backing away I saw that this corner room had a door
opening on the porch and two other windows.

I listened, hoping to hear Steele's footsteps coming up the road. But I
heard only Sally's laugh and her cousin's mellow voice.

Then I saw lighted windows down at the other end of the front part of
the house. I walked down. A door stood open and through it I saw a room
identical with that at the other corner; and here were Colonel Sampson,
Wright, and several other men, all smoking and talking.

It might have been interesting to tarry there within ear-shot, but I
wanted to get back to the road to intercept Steele. Scarcely had I
retraced my steps and seated myself on the porch steps when a very tall
dark figure loomed up in the moonlit road.

Steele! I wanted to yell like a boy. He came on slowly, looking all
around, halted some twenty paces distant, surveyed the house, then
evidently espying me, came on again.

My first feeling was, What a giant! But his face was hidden in the
shadow of a sombrero.

I had intended, of course, upon first sight to blurt out my identity.
Yet I did not. He affected me strangely, or perhaps it was my emotion at
the thought that we Rangers, with so much in common and at stake, had
come together.

"Is Sampson at home?" he asked abruptly.

I said, "Yes."

"Ask him if he'll see Vaughn Steele, Ranger."

"Wait here," I replied. I did not want to take up any time then
explaining my presence there.

Deliberately and noisily I strode down the porch and entered the room
with the smoking men.

I went in farther than was necessary for me to state my errand. But I
wanted to see Sampson's face, to see into his eyes.

As I entered, the talking ceased. I saw no face except his and that
seemed blank.

"Vaughn Steele, Ranger--come to see you, sir." I announced.

Did Sampson start--did his eyes show a fleeting glint--did his face
almost imperceptibly blanch? I could not have sworn to either. But there
was a change, maybe from surprise.

The first sure effect of my announcement came in a quick exclamation
from Wright, a sibilant intake of breath, that did not seem to denote
surprise so much as certainty. Wright might have emitted a curse with
less force.

Sampson moved his hand significantly and the action was a voiceless
command for silence as well as an assertion that he would attend to this
matter. I read him clearly so far. He had authority, and again I felt
his power.

"Steele to see me. Did he state his business?"

"No, sir." I replied.

"Russ, say I'm not at home," said Sampson presently, bending over to
relight his pipe.

I went out. Someone slammed the door behind me.

As I strode back across the porch my mind worked swiftly; the machinery
had been idle for a while and was now started.

"Mr. Steele," I said, "Colonel Sampson says he's not at home. Tell your
business to his daughter."

Without waiting to see the effect of my taking so much upon myself, I
knocked upon the parlor door. Miss Sampson opened it. She wore white.
Looking at her, I thought it would be strange if Steele's well-known
indifference to women did not suffer an eclipse.

"Miss Sampson, here is Vaughn Steele to see you," I said.

"Won't you come in?" she said graciously.

Steele had to bend his head to enter the door. I went in with him, an
intrusion, perhaps, that in the interest of the moment she appeared not
to notice.

Steele seemed to fill the room with his giant form. His face was fine,
stern, clear cut, with blue or gray eyes, strangely penetrating. He was
coatless, vestless. He wore a gray flannel shirt, corduroys, a big gun
swinging low, and top boots reaching to his knees.

He was the most stalwart son of Texas I had seen in many a day, but
neither his great stature nor his striking face accounted for something
I felt--a something spiritual, vital, compelling, that drew me.

"Mr. Steele, I'm pleased to meet you," said Miss Sampson. "This is my
cousin, Sally Langdon. We just arrived--I to make this my home, she to
visit me."

Steele smiled as he bowed to Sally. He was easy, with a kind of rude
grace, and showed no sign of embarrassment or that beautiful girls were
unusual to him.

"Mr. Steele, we've heard of you in Austin," said Sally with her eyes
misbehaving.

I hoped I would not have to be jealous of Steele. But this girl was a
little minx if not altogether a flirt.

"I did not expect to be received by ladies," replied Steele. "I called
upon Mr. Sampson. He would not see me. I was to tell my business to his
daughter. I'm glad to know you, Miss Sampson and your cousin, but sorry
you've come to Linrock now."

"Why?" queried both girls in unison.

"Because it's--oh, pretty rough--no place for girls to walk and ride."

"Ah! I see. And your business has to do with rough places," said Miss
Sampson. "Strange that papa would not see you. Stranger that he should
want me to hear your business. Either he's joking or wants to impress
me.

"Papa tried to persuade me not to come. He tried to frighten me with
tales of this--this roughness out here. He knows I'm in earnest, how I'd
like to help somehow, do some little good. Pray tell me this business."

"I wished to get your father's cooperation in my work."

"Your work? You mean your Ranger duty--the arresting of rough
characters?"

"That, yes. But that's only a detail. Linrock is bad internally. My job
is to make it good."

"A splendid and worthy task," replied Miss Sampson warmly. "I wish you
success. But, Mr. Steele, aren't you exaggerating Linrock's wickedness?"

"No," he answered forcibly.

"Indeed! And papa refused to see you--presumably refused to cooperate
with you?" she asked thoughtfully.

"I take it that way."

"Mr. Steele, pray tell me what is the matter with Linrock and just
what the work is you're called upon to do?" she asked seriously. "I
heard papa say that he was the law in Linrock. Perhaps he resents
interference. I know he'll not tolerate any opposition to his will.
Please tell me. I may be able to influence him."

I listened to Steele's deep voice as he talked about Linrock. What he
said was old to me, and I gave heed only to its effect.

Miss Sampson's expression, which at first had been earnest and grave,
turned into one of incredulous amaze. She, and Sally too, watched
Steele's face in fascinated attention.

When it came to telling what he wanted to do, the Ranger warmed to his
subject; he talked beautifully, convincingly, with a certain strange,
persuasive power that betrayed how he worked his way; and his fine face,
losing its stern, hard lines, seemed to glow and give forth a spirit
austere, yet noble, almost gentle, assuredly something vastly different
from what might have been expected in the expression of a gun-fighting
Ranger. I sensed that Miss Sampson felt this just as I did.

"Papa said you were a hounder of outlaws--a man who'd rather kill than
save!" she exclaimed.

The old stern cast returned to Steele's face. It was as if he had
suddenly remembered himself.

"My name is infamous, I am sorry to say," he replied.

"You have killed men?" she asked, her dark eyes dilating.

Had any one ever dared ask Steele that before? His face became a mask.
It told truth to me, but she could not see, and he did not answer.

"Oh, you are above that. Don't--don't kill any one here!"

"Miss Sampson, I hope I won't." His voice seemed to check her. I had
been right in my estimate of her character--young, untried, but all
pride, fire, passion. She was white then, and certainly beautiful.

Steele watched her, could scarcely have failed to see the white gleam of
her beauty, and all that evidence of a quick and noble heart.

"Pardon me, please, Mr. Steele," she said, recovering her composure. "I
am--just a little overexcited. I didn't mean to be inquisitive. Thank
you for your confidence. I've enjoyed your call, though your news did
distress me. You may rely upon me to talk to papa."

That appeared to be a dismissal, and, bowing to her and Sally, the
Ranger went out. I followed, not having spoken.

At the end of the porch I caught up with Steele and walked out into the
moonlight beside him.

Just why I did not now reveal my identity I could not say, for certainly
I was bursting with the desire to surprise him, to earn his approval. He
loomed dark above me, appearing not to be aware of my presence. What a
cold, strange proposition this Ranger was!

Still, remembering the earnestness of his talk to Miss Sampson, I could
not think him cold. But I must have thought him so to any attraction of
those charming girls.

Suddenly, as we passed under the shade of cottonwoods, he clamped a big
hand down on my shoulder.

"My God, Russ, isn't she lovely!" he ejaculated.

In spite of my being dumbfounded I had to hug him. He knew me!

"Thought you didn't swear!" I gasped.

Ridiculously those were my first words to Vaughn Steele.

"My boy, I saw you parading up and down the street looking for me," he
said. "I intended to help you find me to-morrow."

We gripped hands, and that strong feel and clasp meant much.

"Yes, she's lovely, Steele," I said. "But did you look at the cousin,
the little girl with the eyes?"

Then we laughed and loosed hands.

"Come on, let's get out somewhere. I've a million things to tell you."

We went away out into the open where some stones gleamed white in the
moonlight, and there, sitting in the sand, our backs against a rest, and
with all quiet about us, we settled down for a long conference.

I began with Neal's urgent message to me, then told of my going to the
capitol--what I had overheard when Governor Smith was in the adjutant's
office; of my interview with them; of the spying on Colonel Sampson;
Neal's directions, advice, and command; the ride toward San Antonio; my
being engaged as cowboy by Miss Sampson; of the further ride on to
Sanderson and the incident there; and finally how I had approached
Sampson and then had thought it well to get his daughter into the scheme
of things.

It was a long talk, even for me, and my voice sounded husky.

"I told Neal I'd be lucky to get you," said Steele, after a silence.

That was the only comment on my actions, the only praise, but the quiet
way he spoke it made me feel like a boy undeserving of so much.

"Here, I forgot the money Neal sent," I went on, glad to be rid of the
huge roll of bills.

The Ranger showed surprise. Besides, he was very glad.

"The Captain loves the service," said Steele. "He alone knows the worth
of the Rangers. And the work he's given his life to--the _good_ that
_service_ really does--all depends on you and me, Russ!"

I assented, gloomily enough. Then I waited while he pondered.

The moon soared clear; there was a cool wind rustling the greasewood; a
dog bayed a barking coyote; lights twinkled down in the town.

I looked back up at the dark hill and thought of Sally Langdon. Getting
here to Linrock, meeting Steele had not changed my feelings toward her,
only somehow they had removed me far off in thought, out of possible
touch, it seemed.

"Well, son, listen," began Steele. His calling me that was a joke, yet I
did not feel it. "You've made a better start than I could have figured.
Neal said you were lucky. Perhaps. But you've got brains.

"Now, here's your cue for the present. Work for Miss Sampson. Do your
best for her as long as you last. I don't suppose you'll last long. You
have got to get in with this gang in town. Be a flash cowboy. You don't
need to get drunk, but you're to pretend it.

"Gamble. Be a good fellow. Hang round the barrooms. I don't care how you
play the part, so long as you make friends, learn the ropes. We can meet
out here at nights to talk and plan.

"You're to take sides with those who're against me. I'll furnish you
with the money. You'd better appear to be a winning gambler, even if
you're not. How's this plan strike you?"

"Great--except for one thing," I replied. "I hate to lie to Miss
Sampson. She's true blue, Steele."

"Son, you haven't got soft on her?"

"Not a bit. Maybe I'm soft on the little cousin. But I just like Miss
Sampson--think she's fine--could look up to her. And I hate to be
different from what she thinks."

"I understand, Russ," he replied in his deep voice that had such quality
to influence a man. "It's no decent job. You'll be ashamed before her.
So would I. But here's our work, the hardest ever cut out for Rangers.
Think what depends upon it. And--"

"There's something wrong with Miss Sampson's father," I interrupted.

"Something strange if not wrong. No man in this community is beyond us,
Russ, or above suspicion. You've a great opportunity. I needn't say use
your eyes and ears as never before."

"I hope Sampson turns out to be on the square," I replied. "He might be
a lax mayor, too good-natured to uphold law in a wild country. And his
Southern pride would fire at interference. I don't like him, but for his
daughter's sake I hope we're wrong."

Steele's eyes, deep and gleaming in the moonlight, searched my face.

"Son, sure you're not in love with her--you'll not fall in love with
her?"

"No. I am positive. Why?"

"Because in either case I'd likely have need of a new man in your
place," he said.

"Steele, you know something about Sampson--something more!" I exclaimed
swiftly.

"No more than you. When I meet him face to face I may know more. Russ,
when a fellow has been years at this game he has a sixth sense. Mine
seldom fails me. I never yet faced the criminal who didn't somehow
betray fear--not so much fear of me, but fear of himself--his life, his
deeds. That's conscience, or if not, just realization of fate."

Had that been the thing I imagined I had seen in Sampson's face?

"I'm sorry Diane Sampson came out here," I said impulsively.

Steele did not say he shared that feeling. He was looking out upon the
moon-blanched level.

Some subtle thing in his face made me divine that he was thinking of the
beautiful girl to whom he might bring disgrace and unhappiness.




Chapter 2

A KISS AND AN ARREST


A month had passed, a swift-flying time full of new life. Wonderful it
was for me to think I was still in Diane Sampson's employ.

It was the early morning hour of a day in May. The sun had not yet grown
hot. Dew like diamond drops sparkled on the leaves and grass. The gentle
breeze was clear, sweet, with the song of larks upon it.

And the range, a sea of gray-green growing greener, swept away westward
in rolling ridges and hollows, like waves to meet the dark, low hills
that notched the horizon line of blue.

I was sitting on the top bar of the corral fence and before me stood
three saddled horses that would have gladdened any eye. I was waiting
to take the young ladies on their usual morning ride.

Once upon a time, in what seemed the distant past to this eventful
month, I had flattered myself there had been occasions for thought, but
scornfully I soliloquized that in those days I had no cue for thought
such as I had now.

This was one of the moments when my real self seemed to stand off and
skeptically regard the fictitious cowboy.

This gentleman of the range wore a huge sombrero with an ornamented
silver band, a silken scarf of red, a black velvet shirt, much affected
by the Indians, an embroidered buckskin vest, corduroys, and fringed
chaps with silver buttons, a big blue gun swinging low, high heeled
boots, and long spurs with silver rowels.

A flash cowboy! Steele vowed I was a born actor.

But I never divulged the fact that had it not been for my infatuation
for Sally, I never could have carried on that part, not to save the
Ranger service, or the whole State of Texas.

The hardest part had not been the establishing of a reputation. The
scorn of cowboys, the ridicule of gamblers, the badinage of the young
bucks of the settlement--these I had soon made dangerous procedures for
any one. I was quick with tongue and fist and gun.

There had been fights and respect was quickly earned, though the
constant advent of strangers in Linrock always had me in hot water.

Moreover, instead of being difficult, it was fun to spend all the time
I could in the hotels and resorts, shamming a weakness for drink,
gambling, lounging, making friends among the rough set, when all the
time I was a cool, keen registering machine.

The hard thing was the lie I lived in the eyes of Diane Sampson and
Sally Langdon.

I had indeed won the sincere regard of my employer. Her father, her
cousin George, and new-made friends in town had come to her with tales
of my reckless doings, and had urged my dismissal.

But she kept me and all the time pleaded like a sister to have me mend
my vicious ways. She believed what she was told about me, but had faith
in me despite that.

As for Sally, I had fallen hopelessly in love with her. By turns Sally
was indifferent to me, cold, friendly like a comrade, and dangerously
sweet.

Somehow she saw through me, knew I was not just what I pretended to be.
But she never breathed her conviction. She championed me. I wanted to
tell her the truth about myself because I believed the doubt of me alone
stood in the way of my winning her.

Still that might have been my vanity. She had never said she cared for
me although she had looked it.

This tangle of my personal life, however, had not in the least affected
my loyalty and duty to Vaughn Steele. Day by day I had grown more
attached to him, keener in the interest of our work.

It had been a busy month--a month of foundation building. My vigilance
and my stealthy efforts had not been rewarded by anything calculated to
strengthen our suspicions of Sampson. But then he had been absent from
the home very often, and was difficult to watch when he was there.

George Wright came and went, too, presumably upon stock business. I
could not yet see that he was anything but an honest rancher, deeply
involved with Sampson and other men in stock deals; nevertheless, as a
man he had earned my contempt.

He was a hard drinker, cruel to horses, a gambler not above stacking the
cards, a quick-tempered, passionate Southerner.

He had fallen in love with Diane Sampson, was like her shadow when at
home. He hated me; he treated me as if I were the scum of the earth; if
he had to address me for something, which was seldom, he did it harshly,
like ordering a dog. Whenever I saw his sinister, handsome face, with
its dark eyes always half shut, my hand itched for my gun, and I would
go my way with something thick and hot inside my breast.

In my talks with Steele we spent time studying George Wright's character
and actions. He was Sampson's partner, and at the head of a small group
of Linrock ranchers who were rich in cattle and property, if not in
money.

Steele and I had seen fit to wait before we made any thorough
investigation into their business methods. Ours was a waiting game,
anyway.

Right at the start Linrock had apparently arisen in resentment at the
presence of Vaughn Steele. But it was my opinion that there were men in
Linrock secretly glad of the Ranger's presence.

What he intended to do was food for great speculation. His fame, of
course, had preceded him. A company of militia could not have had the
effect upon the wild element of Linrock that Steele's presence had.

A thousand stories went from lip to lip, most of which were false. He
was lightning swift on the draw. It was death to face him. He had killed
thirty men--wildest rumor of all.

He had the gun skill of Buck Duane, the craft of Cheseldine, the
deviltry of King Fisher, the most notorious of Texas desperadoes. His
nerve, his lack of fear--those made him stand out alone even among a
horde of bold men.

At first there had not only been great conjecture among the vicious
element, with which I had begun to affiliate myself, but also a very
decided checking of all kinds of action calculated to be conspicuous to
a keen eyed Ranger.

Steele did not hide, but during these opening days of his stay in
Linrock he was not often seen in town. At the tables, at the bars and
lounging places remarks went the rounds:

"Who's thet Ranger after? What'll he do fust off? Is he waitin' fer
somebody? Who's goin' to draw on him fust--an' go to hell? Jest about
how soon will he be found somewhere full of lead?"

Those whom it was my interest to cultivate grew more curious, more
speculative and impatient as time went by. When it leaked out somewhere
that Steele was openly cultivating the honest stay-at-home citizens, to
array them in time against the other element, then Linrock showed its
wolf teeth hinted of in the letters to Captain Neal.

Several times Steele was shot at in the dark and once slightly injured.
Rumor had it that Jack Blome, the gunman of those parts, was coming in
to meet Steele. Part of Linrock awakened and another part, much smaller,
became quieter, more secluded.

Strangers upon whom we could get no line mysteriously came and went. The
drinking, gambling, fighting in the resorts seemed to gather renewed
life. Abundance of money floated in circulation.

And rumors, vague and unfounded, crept in from Sanderson and other
points, rumors of a gang of rustlers off here, a hold-up of the stage
off here, robbery of a rancher at this distant point, and murder done at
another.

This was Texas and New Mexico life in these frontier days but, strangely
neither Steele nor I had yet been able to associate any rumor or act
with a possible gang of rustlers in Linrock.

Nevertheless we had not been discouraged. After three weeks of waiting
we had become alive to activity around us, and though it was unseen, we
believed we would soon be on its track.

My task was the busier and the easier. Steele had to have a care for his
life. I never failed to caution him of this.

My long reflection on the month's happenings and possibilities was
brought to an end by the disappearance of Miss Sampson and Sally.

My employer looked worried. Sally was in a regular cowgirl riding
costume, in which her trim, shapely figure showed at its best, and her
face was saucy, sparkling, daring.

"Good morning, Russ," said Miss Sampson and she gazed searchingly at me.
I had dropped off the fence, sombrero in hand. I knew I was in for a
lecture, and I put on a brazen, innocent air.

"Did you break your promise to me?" she asked reproachfully.

"Which one?" I asked. It was Sally's bright eyes upon me, rather than
Miss Sampson's reproach, that bothered me.

"About getting drunk again," she said.

"I didn't break _that_ one."

"My cousin George saw you in the Hope So gambling place last night,
drunk, staggering, mixing with that riffraff, on the verge of a brawl."

"Miss Sampson, with all due respect to Mr. Wright, I want to say that he
has a strange wish to lower me in the eyes of you ladies," I protested
with a fine show of spirit.

"Russ, _were_ you drunk?" she demanded.

"No. I should think you needn't ask me that. Didn't you ever see a man
the morning after a carouse?"

Evidently she had. And there I knew I stood, fresh, clean-shaven,
clear-eyed as the morning.

Sally's saucy face grew thoughtful, too. The only thing she had ever
asked of me was not to drink. The habit had gone hard with the Sampson
family.

"Russ, you look just as--as nice as I'd want you to," Miss Sampson
replied. "I don't know what to think. They tell me things. You deny.
Whom shall I believe? George swore he saw you."

"Miss Sampson, did I ever lie to you?"

"Not to my knowledge."

Then I looked at her, and she understood what I meant.

"George has lied to me. That day at Sanderson. And since, too, I fear.
Do you say he lies?"

"Miss Sampson, I would not call your cousin a liar."

Here Sally edged closer, with the bridle rein of her horse over her arm.

"Russ, cousin George isn't the only one who saw you. Burt Waters told me
the same," said Sally nervously. I believed she hoped I was telling the
truth.

"Waters! So he runs me down behind my back. All right, I won't say a
word about him. But do you believe I was drunk when I say no?"

"I'm afraid I do, Russ," she replied in reluctance. Was she testing me?

"See here, Miss Sampson," I burst out. "Why don't you discharge me?
Please let me go. I'm not claiming much for myself, but you don't
believe even that. I'm pretty bad. I never denied the scraps, the
gambling--all that. But I did do as Miss Sally asked me--I did keep my
promise to you. Now, discharge me. Then I'll be free to call on Mr. Burt
Waters."

Miss Sampson looked alarmed and Sally turned pale, to my extreme joy.

Those girls believed I was a desperate devil of a cowboy, who had been
held back from spilling blood solely through their kind relation to me.

"Oh, no!" exclaimed Sally. "Diane, don't let him go!"

"Russ, pray don't get angry," replied Miss Sampson and she put a soft
hand on me that thrilled me, while it made me feel like a villain. "I
won't discharge you. I need you. Sally needs you. After all, it's none
of my business what you do away from here. But I hoped I would be so
happy to--to reclaim you from--Didn't you ever have a sister, Russ?"

I kept silent for fear that I would perjure myself anew. Yet the
situation was delicious, and suddenly I conceived a wild idea.

"Miss Sampson," I began haltingly, but with brave front, "I've been wild
in the past. But I've been tolerably straight here, trying to please
you. Lately I have been going to the bad again. Not drunk, but leaning
that way. Lord knows what I'll do soon if--if my trouble isn't cured."

"Russ! What trouble?"

"You know what's the matter with me," I went on hurriedly. "Anybody
could see that."

Sally turned a flaming scarlet. Miss Sampson made it easier for me by
reason of her quick glance of divination.

"I've fallen in love with Miss Sally. I'm crazy about her. Here I've got
to see these fellows flirting with her. And it's killing me. I've--"

"If you are crazy about me, you don't have to tell!" cried Sally, red
and white by turns.

"I want to stop your flirting one way or another. I've been in earnest.
I wasn't flirting. I begged you to--to..."

"You never did," interrupted Sally furiously. That hint had been a
spark.

"I couldn't have dreamed it," I protested, in a passion to be earnest,
yet tingling with the fun of it. "That day when I--didn't I ask..."

"If my memory serves me correctly, you didn't ask anything," she
replied, with anger and scorn now struggling with mirth.

"But, Sally, I meant to. You understood me? Say you didn't believe I
could take that liberty without honorable intentions."

That was too much for Sally. She jumped at her horse, made the quickest
kind of a mount, and was off like a flash.

"Stop me if you can," she called back over her shoulder, her face alight
and saucy.

"Russ, go after her," said Miss Sampson. "In that mood she'll ride to
Sanderson. My dear fellow, don't stare so. I understand many things now.
Sally is a flirt. She would drive any man mad. Russ, I've grown in a
short time to like you. If you'll be a man--give up drinking and
gambling--maybe you'll have a chance with her. Hurry now--go after her."

I mounted and spurred my horse after Sally's. She was down on the level
now, out in the open, and giving her mount his head. Even had I wanted
to overhaul her at once the matter would have been difficult, well nigh
impossible under five miles.

Sally had as fast a horse as there was on the range; she made no weight
in the saddle, and she could ride. From time to time she looked back
over her shoulder.

I gained enough to make her think I was trying to catch her. Sally loved
a horse; she loved a race; she loved to win.

My good fortune had given me more than one ride alone with Sally. Miss
Sampson enjoyed riding, too; but she was not a madcap, and when she
accompanied us there was never any race.

When Sally got out alone with me she made me ride to keep her from
disappearing somewhere on the horizon. This morning I wanted her to
enjoy to the fullest her utter freedom and to feel that for once I could
not catch her.

Perhaps my declaration to Miss Sampson had liberated my strongest
emotions.

However that might be, the fact was that no ride before had ever been
like this one--no sky so blue, no scene so open, free, and enchanting as
that beautiful gray-green range, no wind so sweet. The breeze that
rushed at me might have been laden with the perfume of Sally Langdon's
hair.

I sailed along on what seemed a strange ride. Grazing horses pranced and
whistled as I went by; jack-rabbits bounded away to hide in the longer
clumps of grass; a prowling wolf trotted from his covert near a herd of
cattle.

Far to the west rose the low, dark lines of bleak mountains. They were
always mysterious to me, as if holding a secret I needed to know.

It was a strange ride because in the back of my head worked a haunting
consciousness of the deadly nature of my business there on the frontier,
a business in such contrast with this dreaming and dallying, this
longing for what surely was futile.

Any moment I might be stripped of my disguise. Any moment I might have
to be the Ranger.

Sally kept the lead across the wide plain, and mounted to the top of a
ridge, where tired out, and satisfied with her victory, she awaited me.
I was in no hurry to reach the summit of the long, slow-sloping ridge,
and I let my horse walk.

Just how would Sally Langdon meet me now, after my regretted exhibition
before her cousin? There was no use to conjecture, but I was not
hopeful.

When I got there to find her in her sweetest mood, with some little
difference never before noted--a touch of shyness--I concealed my
surprise.

"Russ, I gave you a run that time," she said. "Ten miles and you never
caught me!"

"But look at the start you had. I've had my troubles beating you with an
even break."

Sally was susceptible to flattery in regard to her riding, a fact that
I made subtle use of.

"But in a long race I was afraid you'd beat me. Russ, I've learned to
ride out here. Back home I never had room to ride a horse. Just look.
Miles and miles of level, of green. Little hills with black bunches of
trees. Not a soul in sight. Even the town hidden in the green. All wild
and lonely. Isn't it glorious, Russ?"

"Lately it's been getting to me," I replied soberly.

We both gazed out over the sea of gray-green, at the undulating waves
of ground in the distance. On these rides with her I had learned to
appreciate the beauty of the lonely reaches of plain.

But when I could look at her I seldom wasted time on scenery. Looking at
her now I tried to get again that impression of a difference in her. It
eluded me.

Just now with the rose in her brown cheeks, her hair flying, her eyes
with grave instead of mocking light, she seemed only prettier than
usual. I got down ostensibly to tighten the saddle girths on her horse.
But I lingered over the task.

Presently, when she looked down at me, I received that subtle impression
of change, and read it as her soft mood of dangerous sweetness that came
so seldom, mingled with something deeper, more of character and
womanliness than I had ever sensed in her.

"Russ, it wasn't nice to tell Diane that," she said.

"Nice! It was--oh, I'd like to swear!" I ejaculated. "But now I
understand my miserable feeling. I was jealous, Sally, I'm sorry. I
apologize."

She had drawn off her gloves, and one little hand, brown, shapely,
rested upon her knee very near to me. I took it in mine. She let it
stay, though she looked away from me, the color rich in her cheeks.

"I can forgive that," she murmured. "But the lie. Jealousy doesn't
excuse a lie."

"You mean--what I intimated to your cousin," I said, trying to make her
look at me. "That was the devil in me. Only it's true."

"How can it be true when you never asked--said a word--you hinted of?"
she queried. "Diane believed what you said. I know she thinks me
horrid."

"No she doesn't. As for what I said, or meant to say, which is the same
thing, how'd you take my actions? I hope not the same as you take
Wright's or the other fellow's."

Sally was silent, a little pale now, and I saw that I did not need to
say any more about the other fellows. The change, the difference was now
marked. It drove me to give in wholly to this earnest and passionate
side of myself.

"Sally, I do love you. I don't know how you took my actions. Anyway, now
I'll make them plain. I was beside myself with love and jealousy. Will
you marry me?"

She did not answer. But the old willful Sally was not in evidence.
Watching her face I gave her a slow and gentle pull, one she could
easily resist if she cared to, and she slipped from her saddle into my
arms.

Then there was one wildly sweet moment in which I had the blissful
certainty that she kissed me of her own accord. She was abashed, yet
yielding; she let herself go, yet seemed not utterly unstrung. Perhaps
I was rough, held her too hard, for she cried out a little.

"Russ! Let me go. Help me--back."

I righted her in the saddle, although not entirely releasing her.

"But, Sally, you haven't told me anything," I remonstrated tenderly. "Do
you love me?"

"I think so," she whispered.

"Sally, will you marry me?"

She disengaged herself then, sat erect and faced away from me, with her
breast heaving.

"No, Russ," she presently said, once more calm.

"But Sally--if you love me--" I burst out, and then stopped, stilled by
something in her face.

"I can't help--loving you, Russ," she said. "But to promise to marry
you, that's different. Why, Russ, I know nothing about you, not even
your last name. You're not a--a steady fellow. You drink, gamble, fight.
You'll kill somebody yet. Then I'll _not_ love you. Besides, I've always
felt you're not just what you seemed. I can't trust you. There's
something wrong about you."

I knew my face darkened, and perhaps hope and happiness died in it.
Swiftly she placed a kind hand on my shoulder.

"Now, I've hurt you. Oh, I'm sorry. Your asking me makes such a
difference. _They_ are not in earnest. But, Russ, I had to tell you
why I couldn't be engaged to you."

"I'm not good enough for you. I'd no right to ask you to marry me," I
replied abjectly.

"Russ, don't think me proud," she faltered. "I wouldn't care who you
were if I could only--only respect you. Some things about you are
splendid, you're such a man, that's why I cared. But you gamble. You
drink--and I _hate_ that. You're dangerous they say, and I'd be, I _am_
in constant dread you'll kill somebody. Remember, Russ, I'm no Texan."

This regret of Sally's, this faltering distress at giving me pain, was
such sweet assurance that she did love me, better than she knew, that I
was divided between extremes of emotion.

"Will you wait? Will you trust me a little? Will you give me a chance?
After all, maybe I'm not so bad as I seem."

"Oh, if you weren't! Russ, are you asking me to trust you?"

"I beg you to--dearest. Trust me and wait."

"Wait? What for? Are you really on the square, Russ? Or are you what
George calls you--a drunken cowboy, a gambler, sharp with the cards, a
gun-fighter?"

My face grew cold as I felt the blood leave it. At that moment mention
of George Wright fixed once for all my hate of him.

Bitter indeed was it that I dared not give him the lie. But what could
I do? The character Wright gave me was scarcely worse than what I had
chosen to represent. I had to acknowledge the justice of his claim, but
nevertheless I hated him.

"Sally, I ask you to trust me in spite of my reputation."

"You ask me a great deal," she replied.

"Yes, it's too much. Let it be then only this--you'll wait. And while
you wait, promise not to flirt with Wright and Waters."

"Russ, I'll not let George or any of them so much as dare touch me," she
declared in girlish earnestness, her voice rising. "I'll promise if
you'll promise me not to go into those saloons any more."

One word would have brought her into my arms for good and all. The
better side of Sally Langdon showed then in her appeal. That appeal was
as strong as the drawing power of her little face, all eloquent with its
light, and eyes dark with tears, and lips wanting to smile.

My response should have been instant. How I yearned to give it and win
the reward I imagined I saw on her tremulous lips! But I was bound. The
grim, dark nature of my enterprise there in Linrock returned to stultify
my eagerness, dispel my illusion, shatter my dream.

For one instant it flashed through my mind to tell Sally who I was, what
my errand was, after the truth. But the secret was not mine to tell. And
I kept my pledges.

The hopeful glow left Sally's face. Her disappointment seemed keen. Then
a little scorn of certainty was the bitterest of all for me to bear.

"That's too much to promise all at once," I protested lamely, and I knew
I would have done better to keep silence.

"Russ, a promise like that is nothing--if a man loves a girl," she
retorted. "Don't make any more love to me, please, unless you want me to
laugh at you. And don't feel such terrible trouble if you happen to see
me flirting occasionally."

She ended with a little mocking laugh. That was the perverse side of
her, the cat using her claws. I tried not to be angry, but failed.

"All right. I'll take my medicine," I replied bitterly. "I'll certainly
never make love to you again. And I'll stand it if I happen to see
Waters kiss you, or any other decent fellow. But look out how you let
that damned backbiter Wright fool around you!"

I spoke to her as I had never spoken before, in quick, fierce meaning,
with eyes holding hers.

She paled. But even my scarce-veiled hint did not chill her anger.
Tossing her head she wheeled and rode away.

I followed at a little distance, and thus we traveled the ten miles back
to the ranch. When we reached the corrals she dismounted and, turning
her horse over to Dick, she went off toward the house without so much as
a nod or good-by to me.

I went down to town for once in a mood to live up to what had been
heretofore only a sham character.

But turning a corner into the main street I instantly forgot myself at
the sight of a crowd congregated before the town hall. There was a babel
of voices and an air of excitement that I immediately associated with
Sampson, who as mayor of Linrock, once in a month of moons held court in
this hall.

It took slipping and elbowing to get through the crowd. Once inside the
door I saw that the crowd was mostly outside, and evidently not so
desirous as I was to enter.

The first man I saw was Steele looming up; the next was Sampson chewing
his mustache--the third, Wright, whose dark and sinister face told much.
Something was up in Linrock. Steele had opened the hall.

There were other men in the hall, a dozen or more, and all seemed
shouting excitedly in unison with the crowd outside. I did not try to
hear what was said. I edged closer in, among the men to the front.

Sampson sat at a table up on a platform. Near him sat a thick-set
grizzled man, with deep eyes; and this was Hanford Owens, county judge.

To the right stood a tall, angular, yellow-faced fellow with a drooping,
sandy mustache. Conspicuous on his vest was a huge silver shield. This
was Gorsech, one of Sampson's sheriffs.

There were four other men whom I knew, several whose faces were
familiar, and half a dozen strangers, all dusty horsemen.

Steele stood apart from them, a little to one side, so that he faced
them all. His hair was disheveled, and his shirt open at the neck. He
looked cool and hard.

When I caught his eye I realized in an instant that the long deferred
action, the beginning of our real fight was at hand.

Sampson pounded hard on the table to be heard. Mayor or not, he was
unable at once to quell the excitement.

Gradually, however, it subsided and from the last few utterances before
quiet was restored I gathered that Steele had intruded upon some kind of
a meeting in the hall.

"Steele, what'd you break in here for?" demanded Sampson.

"Isn't this court? Aren't you the mayor of Linrock?" interrogated
Steele. His voice was so clear and loud, almost piercing, that I saw at
once that he wanted all those outside to hear.

"Yes," replied Sampson. Like flint he seemed, yet I felt his intense
interest.

I had no doubt then that Steele intended to make him stand out before
this crowd as the real mayor of Linrock or as a man whose office was a
sham.

"I've arrested a criminal," said Steele. "Bud Snell. I charge him with
assault on Jim Hoden and attempted robbery--if not murder. Snell had a
shady past here, as the court will know if it keeps a record."

Then I saw Snell hunching down on a bench, a nerveless and shaken man
if there ever was one. He had been a hanger-on round the gambling dens,
the kind of sneak I never turned my back to.

Jim Hoden, the restaurant keeper, was present also, and on second glance
I saw that he was pale. There was blood on his face. I knew Jim, liked
him, had tried to make a friend of him.

I was not dead to the stinging interrogation in the concluding sentence
of Steele's speech. Then I felt sure I had correctly judged Steele's
motive. I began to warm to the situation.

"What's this I hear about you, Bud? Get up and speak for yourself," said
Sampson, gruffly.

Snell got up, not without a furtive glance at Steele, and he had
shuffled forward a few steps toward the mayor. He had an evil front,
but not the boldness even of a rustler.

"It ain't so, Sampson," he began loudly. "I went in Hoden's place fer
grub. Some feller I never seen before come in from the hall an' hit him
an' wrastled him on the floor. Then this big Ranger grabbed me an'
fetched me here. I didn't do nothin'. This Ranger's hankerin' to arrest
somebody. Thet's my hunch, Sampson."

"What have you to say about this, Hoden?" sharply queried Sampson. "I
call to your mind the fact that you once testified falsely in court, and
got punished for it."

Why did my sharpened and experienced wits interpret a hint of threat or
menace in Sampson's reminder? Hoden rose from the bench and with an
unsteady hand reached down to support himself.

He was no longer young, and he seemed broken in health and spirit. He
had been hurt somewhat about the head.

"I haven't much to say," he replied. "The Ranger dragged me here. I told
him I didn't take my troubles to court. Besides, I can't swear it was
Snell who hit me."

Sampson said something in an undertone to Judge Owens, and that worthy
nodded his great, bushy head.

"Bud, you're discharged," said Sampson bluntly. "Now, the rest of you
clear out of here."

He absolutely ignored the Ranger. That was his rebuff to Steele's
advances, his slap in the face to an interfering Ranger Service.

If Sampson was crooked he certainly had magnificent nerve. I almost
decided he was above suspicion. But his nonchalance, his air of
finality, his authoritative assurance--these to my keen and practiced
eyes were in significant contrast to a certain tenseness of line about
his mouth and a slow paling of his olive skin.

He had crossed the path of Vaughn Steele; he had blocked the way of this
Texas Ranger. If he had intelligence and remembered Steele's fame, which
surely he had, then he had some appreciation of what he had undertaken.

In that momentary lull my scrutiny of Sampson gathered an impression of
the man's intense curiosity.

Then Bud Snell, with a cough that broke the silence, shuffled a couple
of steps toward the door.

"Hold on!" called Steele.

It was a bugle-call. It halted Snell as if it had been a bullet. He
seemed to shrink.

"Sampson, I _saw_ Snell attack Hoden," said Steele, his voice still
ringing. "What has the court to say to that?"

The moment for open rupture between Ranger Service and Sampson's idea of
law was at hand. Sampson showed not the slightest hesitation.

"The court has to say this: West of the Pecos we'll not aid or abet or
accept any Ranger Service. Steele, we don't want you out here. Linrock
doesn't need you."

"That's a lie, Sampson," retorted Steele. "I've a pocket full of letters
from Linrock citizens, all begging for Ranger Service."

Sampson turned white. The veins corded at his temples. He appeared about
to burst into rage. He was at a loss for a quick reply.

Steele shook a long arm at the mayor.

"I need your help. You refuse. Now, I'll work alone. This man Snell
goes to Del Rio in irons."

George Wright rushed up to the table. The blood showed black and thick
in his face; his utterance was incoherent, his uncontrollable outbreak
of temper seemed out of all proportion to any cause he should reasonably
have had for anger.

Sampson shoved him back with a curse and warning glare.

"Where's your warrant to arrest Snell?" shouted Sampson. "I won't give
you one. You can't take him without a warrant."

"I don't need warrants to make arrests. Sampson, you're ignorant of the
power of Texas Rangers."

"You'll take Snell without papers?" bellowed Sampson.

"He goes to Del Rio to jail," answered Steele.

"He won't. You'll pull none of your damned Ranger stunts out here. I'll
block you, Steele."

That passionate reply of Sampson's appeared to be the signal Steele had
been waiting for.

He had helped on the crisis. I believed I saw how he wanted to force
Sampson's hand and show the town his stand.

Steele backed clear of everybody and like two swift flashes of light his
guns leaped forth. He was transformed. My wish was fulfilled.

Here was Steele, the Ranger, in one of his lone lion stands. Not exactly
alone either, for my hands itched for my guns!

"Men! I call on you all!" cried Steele, piercingly. "I call on you to
witness the arrest of a criminal opposed by Sampson, mayor of Linrock.
It will be recorded in the report sent to the Adjutant General at
Austin. Sampson, I warn you--don't follow up your threat."

Sampson sat white with working jaw.

"Snell, come here," ordered Steele.

The man went as if drawn and appeared to slink out of line with the
guns. Steele's cold gray glance held every eye in the hall.

"Take the handcuffs out of my pocket. This side. Go over to Gorsech with
them. Gorsech, snap those irons on Snell's wrists. Now, Snell, back here
to the right of me."

It was no wonder to me to see how instantly Steele was obeyed. He might
have seen more danger in that moment than was manifest to me; on the
other hand he might have wanted to drive home hard what he meant.

It was a critical moment for those who opposed him. There was death in
the balance.

This Ranger, whose last resort was gun-play, had instantly taken the
initiative, and his nerve chilled even me. Perhaps though, he read this
crowd differently from me and saw that intimidation was his cue. I
forgot I was not a spectator, but an ally.

"Sampson, you've shown your hand," said Steele, in the deep voice that
carried so far and held those who heard. "Any honest citizen of Linrock
can now see what's plain--yours is a damn poor hand!

"You're going to hear me call a spade a spade. Your office is a farce.
In the two years you've been mayor you've never arrested one rustler.
Strange, when Linrock's a nest for rustlers! You've never sent a
prisoner to Del Rio, let alone to Austin. You have no jail.

"There have been nine murders since you took office, innumerable street
fights and hold-ups. _Not one arrest!_ But you have ordered arrests for
trivial offenses, and have punished these out of all proportion.

"There have been law-suits in your court--suits over water rights,
cattle deals, property lines. Strange how in these law-suits, you or
Wright or other men close to you were always involved! Stranger how it
seems the law was stretched to favor your interests!"

Steele paused in his cold, ringing speech. In the silence, both outside
and inside the hall, could be heard the deep breathing of agitated men.

I would have liked to search for possible satisfaction on the faces of
any present, but I was concerned only with Sampson. I did not need to
fear that any man might draw on Steele.

Never had I seen a crowd so sold, so stiff, so held! Sampson was indeed
a study. Yet did he betray anything but rage at this interloper?

"Sampson, here's plain talk for you and Linrock to digest," went
on Steele. "I don't accuse you and your court of dishonesty. I
say--_strange_! Law here has been a farce. The motive behind all
this laxity isn't plain to me--yet. But I call your hand!"




Chapter 3

SOUNDING THE TIMBER


When Steele left the hall, pushing Snell before him, making a lane
through the crowd, it was not any longer possible to watch everybody.

Yet now he seemed to ignore the men behind him. Any friend of Snell's
among the vicious element might have pulled a gun. I wondered if Steele
knew how I watched those men at his back--how fatal it would have been
for any of them to make a significant move.

No--I decided that Steele trusted to the effect his boldness had
created. It was this power to cow ordinary men that explained so many of
his feats; just the same it was his keenness to read desperate men, his
nerve to confront them, that made him great.

The crowd followed Steele and his captive down the middle of the main
street and watched him secure a team and buckboard and drive off on the
road to Sanderson.

Only then did that crowd appear to realize what had happened. Then my
long-looked-for opportunity arrived. In the expression of silent men
I found something which I had sought; from the hurried departure of
others homeward I gathered import; on the husky, whispering lips of yet
others I read words I needed to hear.

The other part of that crowd--to my surprise, the smaller part--was the
roaring, threatening, complaining one.

Thus I segregated Linrock that was lawless from Linrock that wanted law,
but for some reason not yet clear the latter did not dare to voice their
choice.

How could Steele and I win them openly to our cause? If that could be
done long before the year was up Linrock would be free of violence and
Captain Neal's Ranger Service saved to the State.

I went from place to place, corner to corner, bar to bar, watching,
listening, recording; and not until long after sunset did I go out to
the ranch.

The excitement had preceded me and speculation was rife. Hurrying
through my supper, to get away from questions and to go on with my
spying, I went out to the front of the house.

The evening was warm; the doors were open; and in the twilight the only
lamps that had been lit were in Sampson's big sitting room at the far
end of the house. Neither Sampson nor Wright had come home to supper.

I would have given much to hear their talk right then, and certainly
intended to try to hear it when they did come home.

When the buckboard drove up and they alighted I was well hidden in the
bushes, so well screened that I could get but a fleeting glimpse of
Sampson as he went in.

For all I could see, he appeared to be a calm and quiet man, intense
beneath the surface, with an air of dignity under insult. My chance to
observe Wright was lost.

They went into the house without speaking, and closed the door.

At the other end of the porch, close under a window, was an offset
between step and wall, and there in the shadow I hid. If Sampson or
Wright visited the girls that evening I wanted to hear what was said
about Steele.

It seemed to me that it might be a good clue for me--the circumstance
whether or not Diane Sampson was told the truth. So I waited there in
the darkness with patience born of many hours of like duty.

Presently the small lamp was lit--I could tell the difference in light
when the big one was burning--and I heard the swish of skirts.

"Something's happened, surely, Sally," I heard Miss Sampson say
anxiously. "Papa just met me in the hall and didn't speak. He seemed
pale, worried."

"Cousin George looked like a thundercloud," said Sally. "For once, he
didn't try to kiss me. Something's happened. Well, Diane, this has been
a bad day for me, too."

Plainly I heard Sally's sigh, and the little pathetic sound brought me
vividly out of my sordid business of suspicion and speculation. So she
was sorry.

"Bad for you, too?" replied Diane in amused surprise. "Oh, I see--I
forgot. You and Russ had it out."

"Out? We fought like the very old deuce. I'll never speak to him again."

"So your little--affair with Russ is all over?"

"Yes." Here she sighed again.

"Well, Sally, it began swiftly and it's just as well short," said Diane
earnestly. "We know nothing at all of Russ."

"Diane, after to-day I respect him in--in spite of things--even though
he seems no good. I--I cared a lot, too."

"My dear, your loves are like the summer flowers. I thought maybe your
flirting with Russ might amount to something. Yet he seems so different
now from what he was at first. It's only occasionally I get the
impression I had of him after that night he saved me from violence. He's
strange. Perhaps it all comes of his infatuation for you. He is in love
with you. I'm afraid of what may come of it."

"Diane, he'll do something dreadful to George, mark my words,"
whispered Sally. "He swore he would if George fooled around me any
more."

"Oh, dear. Sally, what can we do? These are wild men. George makes life
miserable for me. And he teases you unmer..."

"I don't call it teasing. George wants to spoon," declared Sally
emphatically. "He'd run after any woman."

"A fine compliment to me, Cousin Sally," laughed Diane.

"I don't agree," replied Sally stubbornly. "It's so. He's spoony. And
when he's been drinking and tries to kiss me, I hate him."

"Sally, you look as if you'd rather like Russ to do something dreadful
to George," said Diane with a laugh that this time was only half mirth.

"Half of me would and half of me would not," returned Sally. "But all
of me would if I weren't afraid of Russ. I've got a feeling--I don't
know what--something will happen between George and Russ some day."

There were quick steps on the hall floor, steps I thought I recognized.

"Hello, girls!" sounded out Wright's voice, minus its usual gaiety. Then
ensued a pause that made me bring to mind a picture of Wright's glum
face.

"George, what's the matter?" asked Diane presently. "I never saw papa as
he is to-night, nor you so--so worried. Tell me, what has happened?"

"Well, Diane, we had a jar to-day," replied Wright, with a blunt,
expressive laugh.

"Jar?" echoed both the girls curiously.

"Jar? We had to submit to a damnable outrage," added Wright
passionately, as if the sound of his voice augmented his feeling.
"Listen, girls. I'll tell you all about it."

He coughed, clearing his throat in a way that betrayed he had been
drinking.

I sunk deeper in the shadow of my covert, and stiffening my muscles for
a protracted spell of rigidity, prepared to listen with all acuteness
and intensity.

Just one word from this Wright, inadvertently uttered in a moment of
passion, might be the word Steele needed for his clue.

"It happened at the town hall," began Wright rapidly. "Your father and
Judge Owens and I were there in consultation with three ranchers from
out of town. First we were disturbed by gunshots from somewhere, but not
close at hand. Then we heard the loud voices outside.

"A crowd was coming down street. It stopped before the hall. Men came
running in, yelling. We thought there was a fire. Then that Ranger,
Steele, stalked in, dragging a fellow by the name of Snell. We couldn't
tell what was wanted because of the uproar. Finally your father restored
order.

"Steele had arrested Snell for alleged assault on a restaurant keeper
named Hoden. It developed that Hoden didn't accuse anybody, didn't know
who attacked him. Snell, being obviously innocent, was discharged. Then
this--this gun fighting Ranger pulled his guns on the court and halted
the proceedings."

When Wright paused I plainly heard his intake of breath. Far indeed was
he from calm.

"Steele held everybody in that hall in fear of death, and he began
shouting his insults. Law was a farce in Linrock. The court was a farce.
There was no law. Your father's office as mayor should be impeached. He
made arrests only for petty offenses. He was afraid of the rustlers,
highwaymen, murderers. He was afraid or--he just let them alone. He used
his office to cheat ranchers and cattlemen in law-suits.

"All of this Steele yelled for everyone to hear. A damnable outrage!
Your father, Diane, insulted in his own court by a rowdy Ranger! Not
only insulted, but threatened with death--two big guns thrust almost
in his face!"

"Oh! How horrible!" cried Diane, in mingled distress and anger.

"Steele's a Ranger. The Ranger Service wants to rule western Texas,"
went on Wright. "These Rangers are all a low set, many of them worse
than the outlaws they hunt. Some of them were outlaws and gun fighters
before they became Rangers.

"This Steele is one of the worst of the lot. He's keen, intelligent,
smooth, and that makes him more to be feared. For he is to be feared. He
wanted to kill. He meant to kill. If your father had made the least move
Steele would have shot him. He's a cold-nerved devil--the born gunman.
My God, any instant I expected to see your father fall dead at my feet!"

"Oh, George! The--the unspeakable ruffian!" cried Diane, passionately.

"You see, Diane, this fellow Steele has failed here in Linrock. He's
been here weeks and done nothing. He must have got desperate. He's
infamous and he loves his name. He seeks notoriety. He made that play
with Snell just for a chance to rant against your father. He tried to
inflame all Linrock against him. That about law-suits was the worst!
Damn him! He'll make us enemies."

"What do you care for the insinuations of such a man?" said Diane
Sampson, her voice now deep and rich with feeling. "After a moment's
thought no one will be influenced by them. Do not worry, George, tell
papa not to worry. Surely after all these years he can't be injured in
reputation by--by an adventurer."

"Yes, he can be injured," replied George quickly. "The frontier is a
queer place. There are many bitter men here, men who have failed at
ranching. And your father has been wonderfully successful. Steele has
dropped some poison, and it'll spread."

Then followed a silence, during which, evidently, the worried Wright
bestrode the floor.

"Cousin George, what became of Steele and his prisoner?" suddenly asked
Sally.

How like her it was, with her inquisitive bent of mind and shifting
points of view, to ask a question the answering of which would be gall
and wormwood to Wright!

It amused while it thrilled me. Sally might be a flirt, but she was no
fool.

"What became of them? Ha! Steele bluffed the whole town--at least all of
it who had heard the mayor's order to discharge Snell," growled Wright.
"He took Snell--rode off for Del Rio to jail him."

"George!" exclaimed Diane. "Then, after all, this Ranger was able to
arrest Snell, the innocent man father discharged, and take him to jail?"

"Exactly. That's the toughest part...." Wright ended abruptly, and then
broke out fiercely: "But, by God, he'll never come back!"

Wright's slow pacing quickened and he strode from the parlor, leaving
behind him a silence eloquent of the effect of his sinister prediction.

"Sally, what did he mean?" asked Diane in a low voice.

"Steele will be killed," replied Sally, just as low-voiced.

"Killed! That magnificent fellow! Ah, I forgot. Sally, my wits are sadly
mixed. I ought to be glad if somebody kills my father's defamer. But,
oh, I can't be!

"This bloody frontier makes me sick. Papa doesn't want me to stay for
good. And no wonder. Shall I go back? I hate to show a white feather.

"Do you know, Sally, I was--a little taken with this Texas Ranger.
Miserably, I confess. He seemed so like in spirit to the grand stature
of him. How can so splendid a man be so bloody, base at heart? It's
hideous. How little we know of men! I had my dream about Vaughn Steele.
I confess because it shames me--because I hate myself!"

Next morning I awakened with a feeling that I was more like my old self.
In the experience of activity of body and mind, with a prospect that
this was merely the forerunner of great events, I came round to my own
again.

Sally was not forgotten; she had just become a sorrow. So perhaps my
downfall as a lover was a precursor of better results as an officer.

I held in abeyance my last conclusion regarding Sampson and Wright, and
only awaited Steele's return to have fixed in mind what these men were.

Wright's remark about Steele not returning did not worry me. I had heard
many such dark sayings in reference to Rangers.

Rangers had a trick of coming back. I did not see any man or men on the
present horizon of Linrock equal to the killing of Steele.

As Miss Sampson and Sally had no inclination to ride, I had even more
freedom. I went down to the town and burst, cheerily whistling, into Jim
Hoden's place.

Jim always made me welcome there, as much for my society as for the
money I spent, and I never neglected being free with both. I bought
a handful of cigars and shoved some of them in his pocket.

"How's tricks, Jim?" I asked cheerily.

"Reckon I'm feelin' as well as could be expected," replied Jim. His head
was circled by a bandage that did not conceal the lump where he had been
struck. Jim looked a little pale, but he was bright enough.

"That was a hell of a biff Snell gave you, the skunk," I remarked with
the same cheery assurance.

"Russ, I ain't accusin' Snell," remonstrated Jim with eyes that made me
thoughtful.

"Sure, I know you're too good a sport to send a fellow up. But Snell
deserved what he got. I saw his face when he made his talk to Sampson's
court. Snell lied. And I'll tell you what, Jim, if it'd been me instead
of that Ranger, Bud Snell would have got settled."

Jim appeared to be agitated by my forcible intimation of friendship.

"Jim, that's between ourselves," I went on. "I'm no fool. And much as I
blab when I'm hunky, it's all air. Maybe you've noticed that about me.
In some parts of Texas it's policy to be close-mouthed. Policy and
healthy. Between ourselves, as friends, I want you to know I lean some
on Steele's side of the fence."

As I lighted a cigar I saw, out of the corner of my eye, how Hoden gave
a quick start. I expected some kind of a startling idea to flash into
his mind.

Presently I turned and frankly met his gaze. I had startled him out of
his habitual set taciturnity, but even as I looked the light that might
have been amaze and joy faded out of his face, leaving it the same old
mask.

Still I had seen enough. Like a bloodhound, I had a scent. "Thet's
funny, Russ, seein' as you drift with the gang Steele's bound to fight,"
remarked Hoden.

"Sure. I'm a sport. If I can't gamble with gentlemen I'll gamble with
rustlers."

Again he gave a slight start, and this time he hid his eyes.

"Wal, Russ, I've heard you was slick," he said.

"You tumble, Jim. I'm a little better on the draw."

"On the draw? With cards, an' gun, too, eh?"

"Now, Jim, that last follows natural. I haven't had much chance to show
how good I am on the draw with a gun. But that'll come soon."

"Reckon thet talk's a little air," said Hoden with his dry laugh. "Same
as you leanin' a little on the Ranger's side of the fence."

"But, Jim, wasn't he game? What'd you think of that stand? Bluffed the
whole gang! The way he called Sampson--why, it was great! The justice of
that call doesn't bother me. It was Steele's nerve that got me. That'd
warm any man's blood."

There was a little red in Hoden's pale cheeks and I saw him swallow
hard. I had struck deep again.

"Say, don't you work for Sampson?" he queried.

"Me? I _guess_ not. I'm Miss Sampson's man. He and Wright have tried to
fire me many a time."

"Thet so?" he said curiously. "What for?"

"Too many silver trimmings on me, Jim. And I pack my gun low down."

"Wal, them two don't go much together out here," replied Hoden. "But I
ain't seen thet anyone has shot off the trimmin's."

"Maybe it'll commence, Jim, as soon as I stop buying drinks. Talking
about work--who'd you say Snell worked for?"

"I didn't say."

"Well, say so now, can't you? Jim, you're powerful peevish to-day. It's
the bump on your head. Who does Snell work for?"

"When he works at all, which sure ain't often, he rides for Sampson."

"Humph! Seems to me, Jim, that Sampson's the whole circus round Linrock.
I was some sore the other day to find I was losing good money at
Sampson's faro game. Sure if I'd won I wouldn't have been sorry, eh? But
I was surprised to hear some scully say Sampson owned the Hope So dive."

"I've heard he owned considerable property hereabouts," replied Jim
constrainedly.

"Humph again! Why, Jim, you _know_ it, only like every other scully you
meet in this town, you're afraid to open your mug about Sampson. Get me
straight, Jim Hoden. I don't care a damn for Colonel Mayor Sampson. And
for cause I'd throw a gun on him just as quick as on any rustler in
Pecos."

"Talk's cheap, my boy," replied Hoden, making light of my bluster, but
the red was deep in his face.

"Sure, I know that," I said, calming down. "My temper gets up, Jim. Then
it's not well known that Sampson owns the Hope So?"

"Reckon it's known in Pecos, all right. But Sampson's name isn't
connected with the Hope So. Blandy runs the place."

"That Blandy--I've got no use for him. His faro game's crooked, or I'm
locoed bronc. Not that we don't have lots of crooked faro dealers. A
fellow can stand for them. But Blandy's mean, back handed, never looks
you in the eyes. That Hope So place ought to be run by a good fellow
like you, Hoden."

"Thanks, Russ," replied he, and I imagined his voice a little husky.
"Didn't you ever hear _I_ used to run it?"

"No. Did you?" I said quickly.

"I reckon. I built the place, made additions twice, owned it for eleven
years."

"Well, I'll be doggoned!"

It was indeed my turn to be surprised, and with the surprise came
glimmering.

"I'm sorry you're not there now, Jim. Did you sell out?"

"No. Just lost the place."

Hoden was bursting for relief now--to talk--to tell. Sympathy had made
him soft. I did not need to ask another question.

"It was two years ago--two years last March," he went on. "I was in a
big cattle deal with Sampson. We got the stock, an' my share, eighteen
hundred head, was rustled off. I owed Sampson. He pressed me. It come to
a lawsuit, an' I--was ruined."

It hurt me to look at Hoden. He was white, and tears rolled down his
cheeks.

I saw the bitterness, the defeat, the agony of the man. He had failed to
meet his obligation; nevertheless he had been swindled.

All that he suppressed, all that would have been passion had the man's
spirit not been broken, lay bare for me to see. I had now the secret of
his bitterness.

But the reason he did not openly accuse Sampson, the secret of his
reticence and fear--these I thought best to try to learn at some later
time, after I had consulted with Steele.

"Hard luck! Jim, it certainly was tough," I said. "But you're a good
loser. And the wheel turns!

"Now, Jim, here's what I come particular to see you for. I need your
advice. I've got a little money. Between you and me, as friends, I've
been adding some to that roll all the time. But before I lose it I want
to invest some. Buy some stock or buy an interest in some rancher's
herd.

"What I want you to steer me on is a good, square rancher. Or maybe a
couple of ranchers if there happen to be two honest ones in Pecos. Eh?
No deals with ranchers who ride in the dark with rustlers! I've a hunch
Linrock's full of them.

"Now, Jim, you've been here for years. So you must know a couple of men
above suspicion."

"Thank God I do, Russ," he replied feelingly. "Frank Morton an' Si
Zimmer, my friends an' neighbors all my prosperous days. An' friends
still. You can gamble on Frank and Si. But Russ, if you want advice from
me, don't invest money in stock now."

"Why?"

"Because any new feller buyin' stock in Pecos these days will be
rustled quicker'n he can say Jack Robinson. The pioneers, the new
cattlemen--these are easy pickin'. But the new fellers have to learn the
ropes. They don't know anythin' or anybody. An' the old ranchers are
wise an' sore. They'd fight if they...."

"What?" I put in as he paused. "If they knew who was rustling the stock?"

"Nope."

"If they had the nerve?"

"Not thet so much."

"What then? What'd make them fight?"

"A leader!"

I went out of Hoden's with that word ringing in my ears. A leader! In my
mind's eye I saw a horde of dark faced, dusty-booted cattlemen riding
grim and armed behind Vaughn Steele.

More thoughtful than usual, I walked on, passing some of my old haunts,
and was about to turn in front of a feed and grain store when a hearty
slap on my back disturbed my reflection.

"Howdy thar, cowboy," boomed a big voice.

It was Morton, the rancher whom Jim had mentioned, and whose
acquaintance I had made. He was a man of great bulk, with a ruddy,
merry face.

"Hello, Morton. Let's have a drink," I replied.

"Gotta rustle home," he said. "Young feller, I've a ranch to work."

"Sell it to me, Morton."

He laughed and said he wished he could. His buckboard stood at the rail,
the horses stamping impatiently.

"Cards must be runnin' lucky," he went on, with another hearty laugh.

"Can't kick on the luck. But I'm afraid it will change. Morton, my
friend Hoden gave me a hunch you'd be a good man to tie to. Now, I've
a little money, and before I lose it I'd like to invest it in stock."

He smiled broadly, but for all his doubt of me he took definite
interest.

"I'm not drunk, and I'm on the square," I said bluntly. "You've taken me
for a no-good cow puncher without any brains. Wake up, Morton. If you
never size up your neighbors any better than you have me--well, you
won't get any richer."

It was sheer enjoyment for me to make my remarks to these men, pregnant
with meaning. Morton showed his pleasure, his interest, but his faith
held aloof.

"I've got some money. I had some. Then the cards have run lucky. Will
you let me in on some kind of deal? Will you start me up as a stockman,
with a little herd all my own?"

"Russ, this's durn strange, comin' from Sampson's cowboy," he said.

"I'm not in his outfit. My job's with Miss Sampson. She's fine, but the
old man? Nit! He's been after me for weeks. I won't last long. That's
one reason why I want to start up for myself."

"Hoden sent you to me, did he? Poor ol' Jim. Wal, Russ, to come out
flat-footed, you'd be foolish to buy cattle now. I don't want to take
your money an' see you lose out. Better go back across the Pecos where
the rustlers ain't so strong. I haven't had more'n twenty-five-hundred
head of stock for ten years. The rustlers let me hang on to a breedin'
herd. Kind of them, ain't it?"

"Sort of kind. All I hear is rustlers." I replied with impatience. "You
see, I haven't ever lived long in a rustler-run county. Who heads the
gang anyway?"

Frank Morton looked at me with a curiously-amused smile.

"I hear lots about Jack Blome and Snecker. Everybody calls them out and
out bad. Do they head this mysterious gang?"

"Russ, I opine Blome an' Snecker parade themselves off boss rustlers
same as gun throwers. But thet's the love such men have for bein'
thought hell. That's brains headin' the rustler gang hereabouts."

"Maybe Blome and Snecker are blinds. Savvy what I mean, Morton? Maybe
there's more in the parade than just the fame of it."

Morton snapped his big jaw as if to shut in impulsive words.

"Look here, Morton. I'm not so young in years even if I am young west of
the Pecos. I can figure ahead. It stands to reason, no matter how damn
strong these rustlers are, how hidden their work, however involved with
supposedly honest men--they can't last."

"They come with the pioneers an' they'll last as long as thar's a single
steer left," he declared.

"Well, if you take that view of circumstances I just figure you as one
of the rustlers!"

Morton looked as if he were about to brain me with the butt of his whip.
His anger flashed by then as unworthy of him, and, something striking
him as funny, he boomed out a laugh.

"It's not so funny," I went on. "If you're going to pretend a yellow
streak, what else will I think?"

"Pretend?" he repeated.

"Sure. You can't fool me, Morton. I know men of nerve. And here in Pecos
they're not any different from those in other places. I say if you show
anything like a lack of sand it's all bluff.

"By nature you've got nerve. There are a lot of men round Linrock who're
afraid of their shadows, afraid to be out after dark, afraid to open
their mouths. But you're not one.

"So, I say, if you claim these rustlers will last, you're pretending
lack of nerve just to help the popular idea along. For they can't last.

"Morton, I don't want to be a hard-riding cowboy all my days. Do you
think I'd let fear of a gang of rustlers stop me from going in business
with a rancher? Nit! What you need out here in Pecos is some new
blood--a few youngsters like me to get you old guys started. Savvy what
I mean?"

"Wal, I reckon I do," he replied, looking as if a storm had blown over
him.

I gauged the hold the rustler gang had on Linrock by the difficult job
it was to stir this really courageous old cattleman. He had grown up
with the evil. To him it must have been a necessary one, the same as dry
seasons and cyclones.

"Russ, I'll look you up the next time I come to town," he said soberly.

We parted, and I, more than content with the meeting, retraced my steps
down street to the Hope So saloon.

Here I entered, bent on tasks as sincere as the ones just finished, but
displeasing, because I had to mix with a low, profane set, to cultivate
them, to drink occasionally despite my deftness at emptying glasses on
the floor, to gamble with them and strangers, always playing the part of
a flush and flashy cowboy, half drunk, ready to laugh or fight.

On the night of the fifth day after Steele's departure, I went, as was
my habit, to the rendezvous we maintained at the pile of rocks out in
the open.

The night was clear, bright starlight, without any moon, and for this
latter fact safer to be abroad. Often from my covert I had seen dark
figures skulking in and out of Linrock.

It would have been interesting to hold up these mysterious travelers; so
far, however, this had not been our game. I had enough to keep my own
tracks hidden, and my own comings and goings.

I liked to be out in the night, with the darkness close down to the
earth, and the feeling of a limitless open all around. Not only did I
listen for Steele's soft step, but for any sound--the yelp of coyote or
mourn of wolf, the creak of wind in the dead brush, the distant clatter
of hoofs, a woman's singing voice faint from the town.

This time, just when I was about to give up for that evening, Steele
came looming like a black giant long before I heard his soft step. It
was good to feel his grip, even if it hurt, because after five days I
had begun to worry.

"Well, old boy, how's tricks?" he asked easily.

"Well, old man, did you land that son of a gun in jail?"

"You bet I did. And he'll stay there for a while. Del Rio rather liked
the idea, Russ. All right there. I side-stepped Sanderson on the way
back. But over here at the little village--Sampson they call it--I was
held up. Couldn't help it, because there wasn't any road around."

"Held up?" I queried.

"That's it, the buckboard was held up. I got into the brush in time to
save my bacon. They began to shoot too soon."

"Did you get any of them?"

"Didn't stay to see," he chuckled. "Had to hoof it to Linrock, and it's
a good long walk."

"Been to your 'dobe yet to-night?"

"I slipped in at the back. Russ, it bothered me some to make sure no one
was laying for me in the dark."

"You'll have to get a safer place. Why not take to the open every
night?"

"Russ, that's well enough on a trail. But I need grub, and I've got to
have a few comforts. I'll risk the 'dobe yet a little."

Then I narrated all that I had seen and done and heard during his
absence, holding back one thing. What I did tell him sobered him at
once, brought the quiet, somber mood, the thoughtful air.

"So that's all. Well, it's enough."

"All pertaining to our job, Vaughn," I replied. "The rest is sentiment,
perhaps. I had a pretty bad case of moons over the little Langdon girl.
But we quarreled. And it's ended now. Just as well, too, because if
she'd...."

"Russ, did you honestly care for her? The real thing, I mean?"

"I--I'm afraid so. I'm sort of hurt inside. But, hell! There's one thing
sure, a love affair might have hindered me, made me soft. I'm glad it's
over."

He said no more, but his big hand pressing on my knee told me of his
sympathy, another indication that there was nothing wanting in this
Ranger.

"The other thing concerns you," I went on, somehow reluctant now to tell
this. "You remember how I heard Wright making you out vile to Miss
Sampson? Swore you'd never come back? Well, after he had gone, when
Sally said he'd meant you'd be killed, Miss Sampson felt bad about it.
She said she ought to be glad if someone killed you, but she couldn't
be. She called you a bloody ruffian, yet she didn't want you shot.

"She said some things about the difference between your hideous
character and your splendid stature. Called you a magnificent
fellow--that was it. Well, then she choked up and confessed something to
Sally in shame and disgrace."

"Shame--disgrace?" echoed Steele, greatly interested. "What?"

"She confessed she had been taken with you--had her little dream about
you. And she hated herself for it."

Never, I thought, would I forget Vaughn Steele's eyes. It did not
matter that it was dark; I saw the fixed gleam, then the leaping,
shadowy light.

"Did she say that?" His voice was not quite steady. "Wonderful! Even if
it only lasted a minute! She might--we might--If it wasn't for this
hellish job! Russ, has it dawned on you yet, what I've got to do to
Diane Sampson?"

"Yes," I replied. "Vaughn, you haven't gone sweet on her?"

What else could I make of that terrible thing in his eyes? He did not
reply to that at all. I thought my arm would break in his clutch.

"You said you knew what I've got to do to Diane Sampson," he repeated
hoarsely.

"Yes, you've got to ruin her happiness, if not her life."

"Why? Speak out, Russ. All this comes like a blow. There for a little I
hoped you had worked out things differently from me. No hope. Ruin her
life! Why?"

I could explain this strange agitation in Steele in no other way except
that realization had brought keen suffering as incomprehensible as it
was painful. I could not tell if it came from suddenly divined love for
Diane Sampson equally with a poignant conviction that his fate was to
wreck her. But I did see that he needed to speak out the brutal truth.

"Steele, old man, you'll ruin Diane Sampson, because, as arrest looks
improbable to me, you'll have to kill her father."

"My God! Why, why? Say it!"

"Because Sampson is the leader of the Linrock gang of rustlers."

That night before we parted we had gone rather deeply into the plan of
action for the immediate future.

First I gave Steele my earnest counsel and then as stiff an argument as
I knew how to put up, all anent the absolute necessity of his eternal
vigilance. If he got shot in a fair encounter with his enemies--well,
that was a Ranger's risk and no disgrace. But to be massacred in bed,
knifed, in the dark, shot in the back, ambushed in any manner--not one
of these miserable ends must be the last record of Vaughn Steele.

He promised me in a way that made me wonder if he would ever sleep again
or turn his back on anyone--made me wonder too, at the menace in his
voice. Steele seemed likely to be torn two ways, and already there was a
hint of future desperation.

It was agreed that I make cautious advances to Hoden and Morton, and
when I could satisfy myself of their trustworthiness reveal my identity
to them. Through this I was to cultivate Zimmer, and then other ranchers
whom we should decide could be let into the secret.

It was not only imperative that we learn through them clues by which we
might eventually fix guilt on the rustler gang, but also just as
imperative that we develop a band of deputies to help us when the fight
began.

Steele, now that he was back in Linrock, would have the center of the
stage, with all eyes upon him. We agreed, moreover, that the bolder the
front now the better the chance of ultimate success. The more nerve he
showed the less danger of being ambushed, the less peril in facing
vicious men.

But we needed a jail. Prisoners had to be corraled after arrest, or the
work would be useless, almost a farce, and there was no possibility of
repeating trips to Del Rio.

We could not use an adobe house for a jail, because that could be easily
cut out of or torn down.

Finally I remembered an old stone house near the end of the main street;
it had one window and one door, and had been long in disuse. Steele
would rent it, hire men to guard and feed his prisoners; and if these
prisoners bribed or fought their way to freedom, that would not injure
the great principle for which he stood.

Both Steele and I simultaneously, from different angles of reasoning,
had arrived at a conviction of Sampson's guilt. It was not so strong as
realization; rather a divination.

Long experience in detecting, in feeling the hidden guilt of men, had
sharpened our senses for that particular thing. Steele acknowledged a
few mistakes in his day; but I, allowing for the same strength of
conviction, had never made a single mistake.

But conviction was one thing and proof vastly another. Furthermore, when
proof was secured, then came the crowning task--that of taking desperate
men in a wild country they dominated.

Verily, Steele and I had our work cut out for us. However, we were
prepared to go at it with infinite patience and implacable resolve.
Steele and I differed only in the driving incentive; of course, outside
of that one binding vow to save the Ranger Service.

He had a strange passion, almost an obsession, to represent the law of
Texas, and by so doing render something of safety and happiness to the
honest pioneers.

Beside Steele I knew I shrunk to a shadow. I was not exactly a heathen,
and certainly I wanted to help harassed people, especially women and
children; but mainly with me it was the zest, the thrill, the hazard,
the matching of wits--in a word, the adventure of the game.

Next morning I rode with the young ladies. In the light of Sally's
persistently flagrant advances, to which I was apparently blind, I saw
that my hard-won victory over self was likely to be short-lived.

That possibility made me outwardly like ice. I was an attentive,
careful, reliable, and respectful attendant, seeing to the safety of my
charges; but the one-time gay and debonair cowboy was a thing of the
past.

Sally, womanlike, had been a little--a very little--repentant; she had
showed it, my indifference had piqued her; she had made advances and
then my coldness had roused her spirit. She was the kind of girl to
value most what she had lost, and to throw consequences to the winds in
winning it back.

When I divined this I saw my revenge. To be sure, when I thought of it
I had no reason to want revenge. She had been most gracious to me.

But there was the catty thing she had said about being kissed again by
her admirers. Then, in all seriousness, sentiment aside, I dared not
make up with her.

So the cold and indifferent part I played was imperative.

We halted out on the ridge and dismounted for the usual little rest.
Mine I took in the shade of a scrubby mesquite. The girls strolled away
out of sight. It was a drowsy day, and I nearly fell asleep.

Something aroused me--a patter of footsteps or a rustle of skirts. Then
a soft thud behind me gave me at once a start and a thrill. First I saw
Sally's little brown hands on my shoulders. Then her head, with hair all
shiny and flying and fragrant, came round over my shoulder, softly
smoothing my cheek, until her sweet, saucy, heated face was right under
my eyes.

"Russ, don't you love me any more?" she whispered.




Chapter 4

STEELE BREAKS UP THE PARTY


That night, I saw Steele at our meeting place, and we compared notes and
pondered details of our problem.

Steele had rented the stone house to be used as a jail. While the
blacksmith was putting up a door and window calculated to withstand many
onslaughts, all the idlers and strangers in town went to see the sight.
Manifestly it was an occasion for Linrock. When Steele let it be known
that he wanted to hire a jailer and a guard this caustically humorous
element offered itself _en masse_. The men made a joke out of it.

When Steele and I were about to separate I remembered a party that was
to be given by Miss Sampson, and I told him about it. He shook his head
sadly, almost doubtfully.

Was it possible that Sampson could be a deep eyed, cunning scoundrel,
the true leader of the cattle rustlers, yet keep that beautiful and
innocent girl out on the frontier and let her give parties to sons and
daughters of a community he had robbed? To any but remorseless Rangers
the idea was incredible.

Thursday evening came in spite of what the girls must have regarded as
an interminably dragging day.

It was easy to differentiate their attitudes toward this party. Sally
wanted to look beautiful, to excell all the young ladies who were to
attend, to attach to her train all the young men, and have them fighting
to dance with her. Miss Sampson had an earnest desire to open her
father's house to the people of Linrock, to show that a daughter had
come into his long cheerless home, to make the evening one of pleasure
and entertainment.

I happened to be present in the parlor, was carrying in some flowers for
final decoration, when Miss Sampson learned that her father had just
ridden off with three horsemen whom Dick, who brought the news, had not
recognized.

In her keen disappointment she scarcely heard Dick's concluding remark
about the hurry of the colonel. My sharp ears, however, took this in and
it was thought-provoking. Sampson was known to ride off at all hours,
yet this incident seemed unusual.

At eight o'clock the house and porch and patio were ablaze with lights.
Every lantern and lamp on the place, together with all that could be
bought and borrowed, had been brought into requisition.

The cowboys arrived first, all dressed in their best, clean shaven, red
faced, bright eyed, eager for the fun to commence. Then the young people
from town, and a good sprinkling of older people, came in a steady
stream.

Miss Sampson received them graciously, excused her father's absence, and
bade them be at home.

The music, or the discordance that went by that name, was furnished by
two cowboys with banjos and an antediluvian gentleman with a fiddle.
Nevertheless, it was music that could be danced to, and there was no
lack of enthusiasm.

I went from porch to parlor and thence to patio, watching and amused.
The lights and the decorations of flowers, the bright dresses and the
flashy scarfs of the cowboys furnished a gay enough scene to a man of
lonesome and stern life like mine. During the dance there was a steady,
continuous shuffling tramp of boots, and during the interval following a
steady, low hum of merry talk and laughter.

My wandering from place to place, apart from my usual careful
observation, was an unobtrusive but, to me, a sneaking pursuit of Sally
Langdon.

She had on a white dress I had never seen with a low neck and short
sleeves, and she looked so sweet, so dainty, so altogether desirable,
that I groaned a hundred times in my jealousy. Because, manifestly,
Sally did not intend to run any risk of my not seeing her in her glory,
no matter where my eyes looked.

A couple of times in promenading I passed her on the arm of some proud
cowboy or gallant young buck from town, and on these occasions she
favored her escort with a languishing glance that probably did as much
damage to him as to me.

Presently she caught me red-handed in my careless, sauntering pursuit of
her, and then, whether by intent or from indifference, she apparently
deigned me no more notice. But, quick to feel a difference in her, I
marked that from that moment her gaiety gradually merged into
coquettishness, and soon into flirtation.

Then, just to see how far she would go, perhaps desperately hoping she
would make me hate her, I followed her shamelessly from patio to parlor,
porch to court, even to the waltz.

To her credit, she always weakened when some young fellow got her in a
corner and tried to push the flirting to extremes. Young Waters was the
only one lucky enough to kiss her, and there was more of strength in his
conquest of her than any decent fellow could be proud of.

When George Wright sought Sally out there was added to my jealousy a
real anxiety. I had brushed against Wright more than once that evening.
He was not drunk, yet under the influence of liquor.

Sally, however, evidently did not discover that, because, knowing her
abhorrence of drink, I believed she would not have walked out with him
had she known. Anyway, I followed them, close in the shadow.

Wright was unusually gay. I saw him put his arm around her without
remonstrance. When the music recommenced they went back to the house.
Wright danced with Sally, not ungracefully for a man who rode a horse as
much as he. After the dance he waved aside Sally's many partners, not so
gaily as would have been consistent with good feeling, and led her away.
I followed. They ended up that walk at the extreme corner of the patio,
where, under gaily colored lights, a little arbor had been made among
the flowers and vines.

Sally seemed to have lost something of her vivacity. They had not been
out of my sight for a moment before Sally cried out. It was a cry of
impatience or remonstrance, rather than alarm, but I decided that it
would serve me an excuse.

I dashed back, leaped to the door of the arbor, my hand on my gun.

Wright was holding Sally. When he heard me he let her go. Then she
uttered a cry that was one of alarm. Her face blanched; her eyes grew
strained. One hand went to her breast. She thought I meant to kill
Wright.

"Excuse me," I burst out frankly, turning to Wright. I never saw a
hyena, but he looked like one. "I heard a squeal. Thought a girl was
hurt, or something. Miss Sampson gave me orders to watch out for
accidents, fire, anything. So excuse me, Wright."

As I stepped back, to my amazement, Sally, excusing herself to the
scowling Wright, hurriedly joined me.

"Oh, it's our dance, Russ!"

She took my arm and we walked through the patio.

"I'm afraid of him, Russ," she whispered. "You frightened me worse
though. You didn't mean to--to--"

"I made a bluff. Saw he'd been drinking, so I kept near you."

"You return good for evil," she replied, squeezing my arm. "Russ, let me
tell you--whenever anything frightens me since we got here I think of
you. If you're only near I feel safe."

We paused at the door leading into the big parlor. Couples were passing.
Here I could scarcely distinguish the last words she said. She stood
before me, eyes downcast, face flushed, as sweet and pretty a lass as
man could want to see, and with her hand she twisted round and round a
silver button on my buckskin vest.

"Dance with me, the rest of this," she said. "George shooed away my
partner. I'm glad for the chance. Dance with me, Russ--not gallantly or
dutifully because I ask you, but because you _want_ to. Else not at
all."

There was a limit to my endurance. There would hardly be another evening
like this, at least, for me, in that country. I capitulated with what
grace I could express.

We went into the parlor, and as we joined the dancers, despite all that
confusion I heard her whisper: "I've been a little beast to you."

That dance seemingly lasted only a moment--a moment while she was all
airy grace, radiant, and alluring, floating close to me, with our hands
clasped. Then it appeared the music had ceased, the couples were finding
seats, and Sally and I were accosted by Miss Sampson.

She said we made a graceful couple in the dance. And Sally said she did
not have to reach up a mile to me--I was not so awfully tall.

And I, tongue-tied for once, said nothing.

Wright had returned and was now standing, cigarette between lips, in the
door leading out to the patio. At the same moment that I heard a heavy
tramp of boots, from the porch side I saw Wright's face change
remarkably, expressing amaze, consternation, then fear.

I wheeled in time to see Vaughn Steele bend his head to enter the door
on that side. The dancers fell back.

At sight of him I was again the Ranger, his ally. Steele was pale, yet
heated. He panted. He wore no hat. He had his coat turned up and with
left hand he held the lapels together.

In a quick ensuing silence Miss Sampson rose, white as her dress. The
young women present stared in astonishment and their partners showed
excitement.

"Miss Sampson, I came to search your house!" panted Steele, courteously,
yet with authority.

I disengaged myself from Sally, who was clinging to my hands, and I
stepped forward out of the corner. Steele had been running. Why did he
hold his coat like that? I sensed action, and the cold thrill animated
me.

Miss Sampson's astonishment was succeeded by anger difficult to control.

"In the absence of my father I am mistress here. I will not permit you
to search my house."

"Then I regret to say I must do so without your permission," he said
sternly.

"Do not dare!" she flashed. She stood erect, her bosom swelling, her
eyes magnificently black with passion. "How dare you intrude here? Have
you not insulted us enough? To search my house to-night--to break up my
party--oh, it's worse than outrage! Why on earth do you want to search
here? Ah, for the same reason you dragged a poor innocent man into my
father's court! Sir, I forbid you to take another step into this house."

Steele's face was bloodless now, and I wondered if it had to do with her
scathing scorn or something that he hid with his hand closing his coat
that way.

"Miss Sampson, I don't need warrants to search houses," he said. "But
this time I'll respect your command. It would be too bad to spoil your
party. Let me add, perhaps you do me a little wrong. God knows I hope
so. I was shot by a rustler. He fled. I chased him here. He has taken
refuge here--in your father's house. He's hidden somewhere."

Steele spread wide his coat lapels. He wore a light shirt, the color of
which in places was white. The rest was all a bloody mass from which
dark red drops fell to the floor.

"Oh!" cried Miss Sampson.

Scorn and passion vanished in the horror, the pity, of a woman who
imagined she saw a man mortally wounded. It was a hard sight for a
woman's eyes, that crimson, heaving breast.

"Surely I didn't see that," went on Steele, closing his coat. "You used
unforgettable words, Miss Sampson. From you they hurt. For I stand
alone. My fight is to make Linrock safer, cleaner, a better home for
women and children. Some day you will remember what you said."

How splendid he looked, how strong against odds. How simple a dignity
fitted his words. Why, a woman far blinder than Diane Sampson could have
seen that here stood a man.

Steele bowed, turned on his heel, and strode out to vanish in the dark.

Then while she stood bewildered, still shocked, I elected to do some
rapid thinking.

How seriously was Steele injured? An instant's thought was enough to
tell me that if he had sustained any more than a flesh wound he would
not have chased his assailant, not with so much at stake in the future.

Then I concerned myself with a cold grip of desire to get near the
rustler who had wounded Steele. As I started forward, however, Miss
Sampson defeated me. Sally once more clung to my hands, and directly we
were surrounded by an excited circle.

It took a moment or two to calm them.

"Then there's a rustler--here--hiding?" repeated Miss Sampson.

"Miss Sampson, I'll find him. I'll rout him out," I said.

"Yes, yes, find him, Russ, but don't use violence," she replied. "Send
him away--no, give him over to--"

"Nothing of the kind," interrupted George Wright, loud-voiced. "Cousin,
go on with your dance. I'll take a couple of cowboys. I'll find
this--this rustler, if there's one here. But I think it's only another
bluff of Steele's."

This from Wright angered me deeply, and I strode right for the door.

"Where are you going?" he demanded.

"I've Miss Sampson's orders. She wants me to find this hidden man. She
trusts me not to allow any violence."

"Didn't I say I'd see to that?" he snarled.

"Wright, I don't care what you say," I retorted. "But I'm thinking you
might not want me to find this rustler."

Wright turned black in the face. Verily, if he had worn a gun he would
have pulled it on me. As it was, Miss Sampson's interference probably
prevented more words, if no worse.

"Don't quarrel," she said. "George, you go with Russ. Please hurry. I'll
be nervous till the rustler's found or you're sure there's not one."

We started with several cowboys to ransack the house. We went through
the rooms, searching, calling out, flashing our lanterns in dark places.

It struck me forcibly that Wright did all the calling. He hurried, too,
tried to keep in the lead. I wondered if he knew his voice would be
recognized by the hiding man.

Be that as it might, it was I who peered into a dark corner, and then
with a cocked gun leveled I said: "Come out!"

He came forth into the flare of lanterns, a tall, slim, dark-faced
youth, wearing dark sombrero, blouse and trousers. I collared him before
any of the others could move, and I held the gun close enough to make
him shrink.

But he did not impress me as being frightened just then; nevertheless,
he had a clammy face, the pallid look of a man who had just gotten over
a shock. He peered into my face, then into that of the cowboy next to
me, then into Wright's and if ever in my life I beheld relief I saw it
then.

That was all I needed to know, but I meant to find out more if I could.

"Who're you?" I asked quietly.

He gazed rather arrogantly down at me. It always irritated me to be
looked down at that way.

"Say, don't be gay with me or you'll get it good," I yelled, prodding
him in the side with the cocked gun. "Who are you? Quick!"

"Bo Snecker," he said.

"Any relation to Bill Snecker?"

"His son."

"What'd you hide here for?"

He appeared to grow sullen.

"Reckoned I'd be as safe in Sampson's as anywheres."

"Ahuh! You're taking a long chance," I replied, and he never knew, or
any of the others, just how long a chance that was.

Sight of Steele's bloody breast remained with me, and I had something
sinister to combat. This was no time for me to reveal myself or to show
unusual feeling or interest for Steele.

As Steele had abandoned his search, I had nothing to do now but let the
others decide what disposition was to be made of Snecker.

"Wright, what'll you do with him?" I queried, as if uncertain, now the
capture was made. I let Snecker go and sheathed my weapon.

That seemed a signal for him to come to life. I guessed he had not much
fancied the wide and somewhat variable sweep of that cocked gun.

"I'll see to that," replied Wright gruffly, and he pushed Snecker in
front of him into the hall. I followed them out into the court at the
back of the house.

As I had very little further curiosity I did not wait to see where they
went, but hurried back to relieve Miss Sampson and Sally.

I found them as I had left them--Sally quiet, pale, Miss Sampson nervous
and distressed. I soon calmed their fears of any further trouble or
possible disturbance. Miss Sampson then became curious and wanted to
know who the rustler was.

"How strange he should come here," she said several times.

"Probably he'd run this way or thought he had a better chance to hide
where there was dancing and confusion," I replied glibly.

I wondered how much longer I would find myself keen to shunt her mind
from any channel leading to suspicion.

"Would papa have arrested him?" she asked.

"Colonel Sampson might have made it hot for him," I replied frankly,
feeling that if what I said had a double meaning it still was no lie.

"Oh, I forgot--the Ranger!" she exclaimed suddenly. "That awful
sight--the whole front of him bloody! Russ, how could he stand up under
such a wound? Do you think it'll kill him?"

"That's hard to say. A man like Steele can stand a lot."

"Russ, please go find him! See how it is with him!" she said, almost
pleadingly.

I started, glad of the chance and hurried down toward the town.

There was a light in the little adobe house where he lived, and
proceeding cautiously, so as to be sure no one saw me, I went close and
whistled low in a way he would recognize. Then he opened the door and I
went in.

"Hello, son!" he said. "You needn't have worried. Sling a blanket over
that window so no one can see in."

He had his shirt off and had been in the act of bandaging a wound that
the bullet had cut in his shoulder.

"Let me tie that up," I said, taking the strips of linen. "Ahuh! Shot
you from behind, didn't he?"

"How else, you locoed lady-charmer? It's a wonder I didn't have to tell
you that."

"Tell me about it."

Steele related a circumstance differing little from other attempts at
his life, and concluded by saying that Snecker was a good runner if he
was not a good shot.

I finished the bandaging and stood off, admiring Steele's magnificent
shoulders. I noted, too, on the fine white skin more than one scar made
by bullets. I got an impression that his strength and vitality were like
his spirit--unconquerable!

"So you knew it was Bill Snecker's son?" I asked when I had told him
about finding the rustler.

"Sure. Jim Hoden pointed him out to me yesterday. Both the Sneckers are
in town. From now on we're going to be busy, Russ."

"It can't come too soon for me," I replied. "Shall I chuck my job? Come
out from behind these cowboy togs?"

"Not yet. We need proof, Russ. We've got to be able to prove things.
Hang on at the ranch yet awhile."

"This Bo Snecker was scared stiff till he recognized Wright. Isn't that
proof?"

"No, that's nothing. We've got to catch Sampson and Wright red-handed."

"I don't like the idea of you trailing along alone," I protested.
"Remember what Neal told me. I'm to kick. It's time for me to hang round
with a couple of guns. You'll never use one."

"The hell I won't," he retorted, with a dark glance of passion. I was
surprised that my remark had angered him. "You fellows are all wrong. I
know _when_ to throw a gun. You ought to remember that Rangers have a
bad name for wanting to shoot. And I'm afraid it's deserved."

"Did you shoot at Snecker?" I queried.

"I could have got him in the back. But that wouldn't do. I shot three
times at his legs--tried to let him down. I'd have made him tell
everything he knew, but he ran. He was too fast for me."

"Shooting at his legs! No wonder he ran. He savvied your game all right.
It's funny, Vaughn, how these rustlers and gunmen don't mind being
killed. But to cripple them, rope them, jail them--that's hell to them!
Well, I'm to go on, up at the ranch, falling further in love with that
sweet kid instead of coming out straight to face things with you?"

Steele had to laugh, yet he was more thoughtful of my insistence.

"Russ, you think you have patience, but you don't know what patience is.
I won't be hurried on this job. But I'll tell you what: I'll hang under
cover most of the time when you're not close to me. See? That can be
managed. I'll watch for you when you come in town. We'll go in the same
places. And in case I get busy you can stand by and trail along after
me. That satisfy you?"

"Fine!" I said, both delighted and relieved. "Well, I'll have to rustle
back now to tell Miss Sampson you're all right."

Steele had about finished pulling on a clean shirt, exercising care not
to disarrange the bandages; and he stopped short to turn squarely and
look at me with hungry eyes.

"Russ, did she--show sympathy?"

"She was all broken up about it. Thought you were going to die."

"Did she send you?"

"Sure. And she said hurry," I replied.

I was not a little gleeful over the apparent possibility of Steele being
in the same boat with me.

"Do you think she would have cared if--if I had been shot up bad?"

The great giant of a Ranger asked this like a boy, hesitatingly, with
color in his face.

"Care! Vaughn, you're as thickheaded as you say I'm locoed. Diane
Sampson has fallen in love with you! That's all. Love at first sight!
She doesn't realize it. But I know."

There he stood as if another bullet had struck him, this time straight
through the heart. Perhaps one had--and I repented a little of my
overconfident declaration.

Still, I would not go back on it. I believed it.

"Russ, for God's sake! What a terrible thing to say!" he ejaculated
hoarsely.

"No. It's not terrible to _say_ it--only the fact is terrible," I went
on. I may be wrong. But I swear I'm right. When you opened your coat,
showed that bloody breast--well, I'll never forget her eyes.

"She had been furious. She showed passion--hate. Then all in a second
something wonderful, beautiful broke through. Pity, fear, agonized
thought of your death! If that's not love, if--if she did not betray
love, then I never saw it. She thinks she hates you. But she loves you."

"Get out of here," he ordered thickly.

I went, not forgetting to peep out at the door and to listen a moment,
then I hurried into the open, up toward the ranch.

The stars were very big and bright, so calm, so cold, that it somehow
hurt me to look at them. Not like men's lives, surely!

What had fate done to Vaughn Steele and to me? I had a moment of
bitterness, an emotion rare with me.

Most Rangers put love behind them when they entered the Service and
seldom found it after that. But love had certainly met me on the way,
and I now had confirmation of my fear that Vaughn was hard hit.

Then the wildness, the adventurer in me stirred to the wonder of it all.
It was in me to exult even in the face of fate. Steele and I, while
balancing our lives on the hair-trigger of a gun, had certainly fallen
into a tangled web of circumstances not calculated in the role of
Rangers.

I went back to the ranch with regret, remorse, sorrow knocking at my
heart, but notwithstanding that, tingling alive to the devilish
excitement of the game.

I knew not what it was that prompted me to sow the same seed in Diane
Sampson's breast that I had sown in Steele's; probably it was just a
propensity for sheer mischief, probably a certainty of the truth and a
strange foreshadowing of a coming event.

If Diane Sampson loved, through her this event might be less tragic.
Somehow love might save us all.

That was the shadowy portent flitting in the dark maze of my mind.

At the ranch dancing had been resumed. There might never have been any
interruption of the gaiety. I found Miss Sampson on the lookout for me
and she searched my face with eyes that silenced my one last qualm of
conscience.

"Let's go out in the patio," I suggested. "I don't want any one to hear
what I say."

Outside in the starlight she looked white and very beautiful. I felt her
tremble. Perhaps my gravity presaged the worst. So it did in one
way--poor Vaughn!

"I went down to Steele's 'dobe, the little place where he lives." I
began, weighing my words. "He let me in--was surprised. He had been shot
high in the shoulder, not a dangerous wound. I bandaged it for him. He
was grateful--said he had no friends."

"Poor fellow! Oh, I'm glad it--it isn't bad," said Miss Sampson.
Something glistened in her eyes.

"He looked strange, sort of forlorn. I think your words--what you said
hurt him more than the bullet. I'm sure of that, Miss Sampson."

"Oh, I saw that myself! I was furious. But I--I meant what I said."

"You wronged Steele. I happen to know. I know his record along the Rio
Grande. It's scarcely my place, Miss Sampson, to tell you what you'll
find out for yourself, sooner or later."

"What shall I find out?" she demanded.

"I've said enough."

"No. You mean my father and cousin George are misinformed or wrong about
Steele? I've feared it this last hour. It was his look. That pierced me.
Oh, I'd hate to be unjust. You say I wronged him, Russ? Then you take
sides with him against my father?"

"Yes," I replied very low.

She was keenly hurt and seemed, despite an effort, to shrink from me.

"It's only natural you should fight for your father," I went on.
"Perhaps you don't understand. He has ruled here for long. He's
been--well, let's say, easy with the evil-doers. But times are changing.
He opposed the Ranger idea, which is also natural, I suppose. Still,
he's wrong about Steele, terribly wrong, and it means trouble."

"Oh, I don't know what to believe!"

"It might be well for you to think things out for yourself."

"Russ, I feel as though I couldn't. I can't make head or tail of life
out here. My father seems so strange. Though, of course, I've only seen
him twice a year since I was a little girl. He has two sides to him.
When I come upon that strange side, the one I never knew, he's like a
man I never saw.

"I want to be a good and loving daughter. I want to help him fight his
battles. But he doesn't--he doesn't _satisfy_ me. He's grown impatient
and wants me to go back to Louisiana. That gives me a feeling of
mystery. Oh, it's _all_ mystery!"

"True, you're right," I replied, my heart aching for her. "It's all
mystery--and trouble for you, too. Perhaps you'd do well to go home."

"Russ, you suggest I leave here--leave my father?" she asked.

"I advise it. You struck a--a rather troublesome time. Later you might
return if--"

"Never. I came to stay, and I'll stay," she declared, and there her
temper spoke.

"Miss Sampson," I began again, after taking a long, deep breath, "I
ought to tell you one thing more about Steele."

"Well, go on."

"Doesn't he strike you now as being the farthest removed from a ranting,
brutal Ranger?"

"I confess he was at least a gentleman."

"Rangers don't allow anything to interfere with the discharge of their
duty. He was courteous after you defamed him. He respected your wish. He
did not break up the dance.

"This may not strike you particularly. But let me explain that Steele
was chasing an outlaw who had shot him. Under ordinary circumstances he
would have searched your house. He would have been like a lion. He would
have torn the place down around our ears to get that rustler.

"But his action was so different from what I had expected, it amazed me.
Just now, when I was with him, I learned, I guessed, what stayed his
hand. I believe you ought to know."

"Know what?" she asked. How starry and magnetic her eyes! A woman's
divining intuition made them wonderful with swift-varying emotion.

They drew me on to the fatal plunge. What was I doing to her--to Vaughn?
Something bound my throat, making speech difficult.

"He's fallen in love with you," I hurried on in a husky voice. "Love at
first sight! Terrible! Hopeless! I saw it--felt it. I can't explain how
I know, but I do know.

"That's what stayed his hand here. And that's why I'm on his side. He's
alone. He has a terrible task here without any handicaps. Every man is
against him. If he fails, you might be the force that weakened him. So
you ought to be kinder in your thought of him. Wait before you judge him
further.

"If he isn't killed, time will prove him noble instead of vile. If he is
killed, which is more than likely, you'll feel the happier for a
generous doubt in favor of the man who loved you."

Like one stricken blind, she stood an instant; then, with her hands at
her breast, she walked straight across the patio into the dark, open
door of her room.




Chapter 5

CLEANING OUT LINROCK


Not much sleep visited me that night. In the morning, the young ladies
not stirring and no prospects of duty for me, I rode down to town.

Sight of the wide street, lined by its hitching posts and saddled
horses, the square buildings with their ugly signs, unfinished yet old,
the lounging, dust-gray men at every corner--these awoke in me a
significance that had gone into oblivion overnight.

That last talk with Miss Sampson had unnerved me, wrought strangely upon
me. And afterward, waking and dozing, I had dreamed, lived in a warm,
golden place where there were music and flowers and Sally's spritelike
form leading me on after two tall, beautiful lovers, Diane and Vaughn,
walking hand in hand.

Fine employment of mind for a Ranger whose single glance down a quiet
street pictured it with darkgarbed men in grim action, guns spouting
red, horses plunging!

In front of Hoden's restaurant I dismounted and threw my bridle. Jim was
unmistakably glad to see me.

"Where've you been? Morton was in an' powerful set on seein' you. I
steered him from goin' up to Sampson's. What kind of a game was you
givin' Frank?"

"Jim, I just wanted to see if he was a safe rancher to make a stock deal
for me."

"He says you told him he didn't have no yellow streak an' that he was a
rustler. Frank can't git over them two hunches. When he sees you he's
goin' to swear he's no rustler, but he _has_ got a yellow streak,
unless..."

This little, broken-down Texan had eyes like flint striking fire.

"Unless?" I queried sharply.

Jim breathed a deep breath and looked around the room before his gaze
fixed again on mine.

"Wal," he replied, speaking low, "Me and Frank allows you've picked the
right men. It was me that sent them letters to the Ranger captain at
Austin. Now who in hell are you?"

It was my turn to draw a deep breath.

I had taken six weeks to strike fire from a Texan whom I instinctively
felt had been prey to the power that shadowed Linrock. There was no one
in the room except us, no one passing, nor near.

Reaching into the inside pocket of my buckskin vest, I turned the lining
out. A star-shaped, bright, silver object flashed as I shoved it, pocket
and all, under Jim's hard eyes.

He could not help but read; United States Deputy Marshall.

"By golly," he whispered, cracking the table with his fist. "Russ, you
sure rung true to me. But never as a cowboy!"

"Jim, the woods is full of us!"

Heavy footsteps sounded on the walk. Presently Steele's bulk darkened
the door.

"Hello," I greeted. "Steele, shake hands with Jim Hoden."

"Hello," replied Steele slowly. "Say, I reckon I know Hoden."

"Nit. Not this one. He's the old Hoden. He used to own the Hope So
saloon. It was on the square when he ran it. Maybe he'll get it back
pretty soon. Hope so!"

I laughed at my execrable pun. Steele leaned against the counter, his
gray glance studying the man I had so oddly introduced.

Hoden in one flash associated the Ranger with me--a relation he had not
dreamed of. Then, whether from shock or hope or fear I know not, he
appeared about to faint.

"Hoden, do you know who's boss of this secret gang of rustlers
hereabouts?" asked Steele bluntly.

It was characteristic of him to come sharp to the point. His voice,
something deep, easy, cool about him, seemed to steady Hoden.

"No," replied Hoden.

"Does anybody know?" went on Steele.

"Wal, I reckon there's not one honest native of Pecos who _knows_."

"But you have your suspicions?"

"We have."

"You can keep your suspicions to yourself. But you can give me your idea
about this crowd that hangs round the saloons, the regulars."

"Jest a bad lot," replied Hoden, with the quick assurance of knowledge.
"Most of them have been here years. Others have drifted in. Some of them
work odd times. They rustle a few steer, steal, rob, anythin' for a
little money to drink an' gamble. Jest a bad lot!

"But the strangers as are always comin' an' goin'--strangers that never
git acquainted--some of them are likely to be _the_ rustlers. Bill an'
Bo Snecker are in town now. Bill's a known cattle-thief. Bo's no good,
the makin' of a gun-fighter. He heads thet way.

"They might be rustlers. But the boy, he's hardly careful enough for
this gang. Then there's Jack Blome. He comes to town often. He lives up
in the hills. He always has three or four strangers with him. Blome's
the fancy gun fighter. He shot a gambler here last fall. Then he was in
a fight in Sanderson lately. Got two cowboys then.

"Blome's killed a dozen Pecos men. He's a rustler, too, but I reckon
he's not the brains of thet secret outfit, if he's in it at all."

Steele appeared pleased with Hoden's idea. Probably it coincided with
the one he had arrived at himself.

"Now, I'm puzzled over this," said Steele. "Why do men, apparently
honest men, seem to be so close-mouthed here? Is that a fact or only my
impression?"

"It's sure a fact," replied Hoden darkly. "Men have lost cattle an'
property in Linrock--lost them honestly or otherwise, as hasn't been
proved. An' in some cases when they talked--hinted a little--they was
found dead. Apparently held up an' robbed. But dead. Dead men don't
talk. Thet's why we're close-mouthed."

Steele's face wore a dark, somber sternness.

Rustling cattle was not intolerable. Western Texas had gone on
prospering, growing in spite of the horde of rustlers ranging its vast
stretches; but this cold, secret, murderous hold on a little struggling
community was something too strange, too terrible for men to stand long.

It had waited for a leader like Steele, and now it could not last.
Hoden's revived spirit showed that.

The ranger was about to speak again when the clatter of hoofs
interrupted him. Horses halted out in front.

A motion of Steele's hand caused me to dive through a curtained door
back of Hoden's counter. I turned to peep out and was in time to see
George Wright enter with the red-headed cowboy called Brick.

That was the first time I had ever seen Wright come into Hoden's. He
called for tobacco.

If his visit surprised Jim he did not show any evidence. But Wright
showed astonishment as he saw the Ranger, and then a dark glint flitted
from the eyes that shifted from Steele to Hoden and back again.

Steele leaned easily against the counter, and he said good morning
pleasantly. Wright deigned no reply, although he bent a curious and hard
scrutiny upon Steele. In fact, Wright evinced nothing that would lead
one to think he had any respect for Steele as a man or as a Ranger.

"Steele, that was the second break of yours last night," he said
finally. "If you come fooling round the ranch again there'll be hell!"

It seemed strange that a man who had lived west of the Pecos for ten
years could not see in Steele something which forbade that kind of talk.

It certainly was not nerve Wright showed; men of courage were seldom
intolerant; and with the matchless nerve that characterized Steele or
the great gunmen of the day there went a cool, unobtrusive manner, a
speech brief, almost gentle, certainly courteous. Wright was a
hot-headed Louisianian of French extraction; a man evidently who had
never been crossed in anything, and who was strong, brutal, passionate,
which qualities, in the face of a situation like this, made him simply a
fool!

The way Steele looked at Wright was joy to me. I hated this smooth,
dark-skinned Southerner. But, of course, an ordinary affront like
Wright's only earned silence from Steele.

"I'm thinking you used your Ranger bluff just to get near Diane
Sampson," Wright sneered. "Mind you, if you come up there again there'll
be hell!"

"You're damn right there'll be hell!" retorted Steele, a kind of high
ring in his voice. I saw thick, dark red creep into his face.

Had Wright's incomprehensible mention of Diane Sampson been an instinct
of love--of jealousy? Verily, it had pierced into the depths of the
Ranger, probably as no other thrust could have.

"Diane Sampson wouldn't stoop to know a dirty blood-tracker like
you," said Wright hotly. His was not a deliberate intention to rouse
Steele; the man was simply rancorous. "I'll call you right, you cheap
bluffer! You four-flush! You damned interfering conceited Ranger!"

Long before Wright ended his tirade Steele's face had lost the tinge of
color, so foreign to it in moments like this; and the cool shade, the
steady eyes like ice on fire, the ruthless lips had warned me, if they
had not Wright.

"Wright, I'll not take offense, because you seem to be championing your
beautiful cousin," replied Steele in slow speech, biting. "But let me
return your compliment. You're a fine Southerner! Why, you're only a
cheap four-flush--damned bull-headed--_rustler_"

Steele hissed the last word. Then for him--for me--for Hoden--there was
the truth in Wright's working passion-blackened face.

Wright jerked, moved, meant to draw. But how slow! Steele lunged
forward. His long arm swept up.

And Wright staggered backward, knocking table and chairs, to fall hard,
in a half-sitting posture, against the wall.

"Don't draw!" warned Steele.

"Wright, get away from your gun!" yelled the cowboy Brick.

But Wright was crazed by fury. He tugged at his hip, his face corded
with purple welts, malignant, murderous, while he got to his feet.

I was about to leap through the door when Steele shot. Wright's gun went
ringing to the floor.

Like a beast in pain Wright screamed. Frantically he waved a limp arm,
flinging blood over the white table-cloths. Steele had crippled him.

"Here, you cowboy," ordered Steele; "take him out, quick!"

Brick saw the need of expediency, if Wright did not realize it, and he
pulled the raving man out of the place. He hurried Wright down the
street, leaving the horses behind.

Steele calmly sheathed his gun.

"Well, I guess that opens the ball," he said as I came out.

Hoden seemed fascinated by the spots of blood on the table-cloths. It
was horrible to see him rubbing his hands there like a ghoul!

"I tell you what, fellows," said Steele, "we've just had a few pleasant
moments with the man who has made it healthy to keep close-mouthed in
Linrock."

Hoden lifted his shaking hands.

"What'd you wing him for?" he wailed. "He was drawin' on you. Shootin'
arms off men like him won't do out here."

I was inclined to agree with Hoden.

"That bull-headed fool will roar and butt himself with all his gang
right into our hands. He's just the man I've needed to meet. Besides,
shooting him would have been murder for me!"

"Murder!" exclaimed Hoden.

"He was a fool, and slow at that. Under such circumstances could I kill
him when I didn't have to?"

"Sure it'd been the trick." declared Jim positively. "I'm not allowin'
for whether he's really a rustler or not. It just won't do, because
these fellers out here ain't goin' to be afraid of you."

"See here, Hoden. If a man's going to be afraid of me at all, that trick
will make him more afraid of me. I know it. It works out. When Wright
cools down he'll remember, he'll begin to think, he'll realize that I
could more easily have killed him than risk a snapshot at his arm. I'll
bet you he goes pale to the gills next time he even sees me."

"That may be true, Steele. But if Wright's the man you think he is he'll
begin that secret underground bizness. It's been tolerable healthy these
last six months. You can gamble on this. If thet secret work does
commence you'll have more reason to suspect Wright. I won't feel very
safe from now on.

"I heard you call him rustler. He knows thet. Why, Wright won't sleep at
night now. He an' Sampson have always been after me."

"Hoden, what are your eyes for?" demanded Steele. "Watch out. And now
here. See your friend Morton. Tell him this game grows hot. Together you
approach four or five men you know well and can absolutely trust.

"Hello, there's somebody coming. You meet Russ and me to-night, out in
the open a quarter of a mile, straight from the end of this street.
You'll find a pile of stones. Meet us there to-night at ten o'clock."

The next few days, for the several hours each day that I was in town, I
had Steele in sight all the time or knew that he was safe under cover.

Nothing happened. His presence in the saloons or any place where men
congregated was marked by a certain uneasy watchfulness on the part of
almost everybody, and some amusement on the part of a few.

It was natural to suppose that the lawless element would rise up in a
mass and slay Steele on sight. But this sort of thing never happened. It
was not so much that these enemies of the law awaited his next move, but
just a slowness peculiar to the frontier.

The ranger was in their midst. He was interesting, if formidable. He
would have been welcomed at card tables, at the bars, to play and drink
with the men who knew they were under suspicion.

There was a rude kind of good humor even in their open hostility.

Besides, one Ranger, or a company of Rangers could not have held the
undivided attention of these men from their games and drinks and
quarrels except by some decided move. Excitement, greed, appetite were
rife in them.

I marked, however, a striking exception to the usual run of strangers I
had been in the habit of seeing. The Sneckers had gone or were under
cover. Again I caught a vague rumor of the coming of Jack Blome, yet he
never seemed to arrive.

Moreover, the goings-on among the habitues of the resorts and the
cowboys who came in to drink and gamble were unusually mild in
comparison with former conduct.

This lull, however, did not deceive Steele and me. It could not last.
The wonder was that it had lasted so long.

There was, of course, no post office in Linrock. A stage arrived twice
a week from Sanderson, if it did not get held up on the way, and the
driver usually had letters, which he turned over to the elderly keeper
of a little store.

This man's name was Jones, and everybody liked him. On the evenings the
stage arrived there was always a crowd at his store, which fact was a
source of no little revenue to him.

One night, so we ascertained, after the crowd had dispersed, two thugs
entered his store, beat the old man and robbed him. He made no
complaint; however, when Steele called him he rather reluctantly gave
not only descriptions of his assailants, but their names.

Steele straightaway went in search of the men and came across them in
Lerett's place. I was around when it happened.

Steele strode up to a table which was surrounded by seven or eight men
and he tapped Sim Bass on the shoulder.

"Get up, I want you," he said.

Bass looked up only to see who had accosted him.

"The hell you say!" he replied impudently.

Steele's big hand shifted to the fellow's collar. One jerk, seemingly no
effort at all, sent Bass sliding, chair and all, to crash into the bar
and fall in a heap. He lay there, wondering what had struck him.

"Miller, I want you. Get up," said Steele.

Miller complied with alacrity. A sharp kick put more life and
understanding into Bass.

Then Steele searched these men right before the eyes of their comrades,
took what money and weapons they had, and marched them out, followed by
a crowd that gathered more and more to it as they went down the street.
Steele took his prisoners into Jones' store, had them identified;
returned the money they had stolen, and then, pushing the two through
the gaping crowd, he marched them down to his stone jail and locked them
up.

Obviously the serious side of this incident was entirely lost upon the
highly entertained audience. Many and loud were the coarse jokes cracked
at the expense of Bass and Miller and after the rude door had closed
upon them similar remarks were addressed to Steele's jailer and guard,
who in truth, were just as disreputable looking as their prisoners.

Then the crowd returned to their pastimes, leaving their erstwhile
comrades to taste the sweets of prison life.

When I got a chance I asked Steele if he could rely on his hired hands,
and with a twinkle in his eye which surprised me as much as his reply,
he said Miller and Bass would have flown the coop before morning.

He was right. When I reached the lower end of town next morning, the
same old crowd, enlarged by other curious men and youths, had come to
pay their respects to the new institution.

Jailer and guard were on hand, loud in their proclamations and
explanations. Naturally they had fallen asleep, as all other hard
working citizens had, and while they slept the prisoners made a hole
somewhere and escaped.

Steele examined the hole, and then engaged a stripling of a youth to see
if he could crawl through. The youngster essayed the job, stuck in the
middle, and was with difficulty extricated.

Whereupon the crowd evinced its delight.

Steele, without more ado, shoved his jailer and guard inside his jail,
deliberately closed, barred and chained the iron bolted door, and put
the key in his pocket. Then he remained there all day without giving
heed to his prisoners' threats.

Toward evening, having gone without drink infinitely longer than was
customary, they made appeals, to which Steele was deaf.

He left the jail, however, just before dark, and when we met he told me
to be on hand to help him watch that night. We went around the outskirts
of town, carrying two heavy double-barreled shotguns Steele had gotten
somewhere and taking up a position behind bushes in the lot adjoining
the jail; we awaited developments.

Steele was not above paying back these fellows.

All the early part of the evening, gangs of half a dozen men or more
came down the street and had their last treat at the expense of the jail
guard and jailer. These prisoners yelled for drink--not water but drink,
and the more they yelled the more merriment was loosed upon the night
air.

About ten o'clock the last gang left, to the despair of the hungry and
thirsty prisoners.

Steele and I had hugely enjoyed the fun, and thought the best part of
the joke for us was yet to come. The moon had arisen, and though
somewhat hazed by clouds, had lightened the night. We were hidden about
sixty paces from the jail, a little above it, and we had a fine command
of the door.

About eleven o'clock, when all was still, we heard soft steps back of
the jail, and soon two dark forms stole round in front. They laid down
something that gave forth a metallic clink, like a crowbar. We heard
whisperings and then, low, coarse laughs.

Then the rescuers, who undoubtedly were Miller and Bass, set to work to
open the door. Softly they worked at first, but as that door had been
put there to stay, and they were not fond of hard work, they began to
swear and make noises.

Steele whispered to me to wait until the door had been opened, and then
when all four presented a good target, to fire both barrels. We could
easily have slipped down and captured the rescuers, but that was not
Steele's game.

A trick met by a trick; cunning matching craft would be the surest of
all ways to command respect.

Four times the workers had to rest, and once they were so enraged at the
insistence of the prisoners, who wanted to delay proceedings to send one
of them after a bottle, that they swore they would go away and cut the
job altogether.

But they were prevailed upon to stay and attack the stout door once
more. Finally it yielded, with enough noise to have awakened sleepers a
block distant, and forth into the moonlight came rescuers and rescued
with low, satisfied grunts of laughter.

Just then Steele and I each discharged both barrels, and the reports
blended as one in a tremendous boom.

That little compact bunch disintegrated like quicksilver. Two stumbled
over; the others leaped out, and all yelled in pain and terror. Then the
fallen ones scrambled up and began to hobble and limp and jerk along
after their comrades.

Before the four of them got out of sight they had ceased their yells,
but were moving slowly, hanging on to one another in a way that
satisfied us they would be lame for many a day.

Next morning at breakfast Dick regaled me with an elaborate story about
how the Ranger had turned the tables on the jokers. Evidently in a night
the whole town knew it.

Probably a desperate stand of Steele's even to the extreme of killing
men, could not have educated these crude natives so quickly into the
realization that the Ranger was not to be fooled with.

That morning I went for a ride with the girls, and both had heard
something and wanted to know everything. I had become a news-carrier,
and Miss Sampson never thought of questioning me in regard to my fund of
information.

She showed more than curiosity. The account I gave of the jail affair
amused her and made Sally laugh heartily.

Diane questioned me also about a rumor that had come to her concerning
George Wright.

He had wounded himself with a gun, it seemed, and though not seriously
injured, was not able to go about. He had not been up to the ranch for
days.

"I asked papa about him," said, Diane, "and papa laughed like--well,
like a regular hyena. I was dumbfounded. Papa's so queer. He looked
thunder-clouds at me.

"When I insisted, for I wanted to know, he ripped out: 'Yes, the damn
fool got himself shot, and I'm sorry it's not worse.'

"Now, Russ, what do you make of my dad? Cheerful and kind, isn't he?"

I laughed with Sally, but I disclaimed any knowledge of George's
accident. I hated the thought of Wright, let alone anything concerning
the fatal certainty that sooner or later these cousins of his were to
suffer through him.

Sally did not make these rides easy for me, for she was sweeter than
anything that has a name. Since the evening of the dance I had tried to
avoid her. Either she was sincerely sorry for her tantrum or she was
bent upon utterly destroying my peace.

I took good care we were never alone, for in that case, if she ever got
into my arms again I would find the ground slipping from under me.

Despite, however, the wear and constant strain of resisting Sally, I
enjoyed the ride. There was a charm about being with these girls.

Then perhaps Miss Sampson's growing unconscious curiosity in regard to
Steele was no little satisfaction to me.

I pretended a reluctance to speak of the Ranger, but when I did it was
to drop a subtle word or briefly tell of an action that suggested such.

I never again hinted the thing that had been such a shock to her. What
was in her mind I could not guess; her curiosity, perhaps the greater
part, was due to a generous nature not entirely satisfied with itself.
She probably had not abandoned her father's estimate of the Ranger but
absolute assurance that this was just did not abide with her. For the
rest she was like any other girl, a worshipper of the lion in a man, a
weaver of romance, ignorant of her own heart.

Not the least talked of and speculated upon of all the details of the
jail incident was the part played by Storekeeper Jones, who had informed
upon his assailants. Steele and I both awaited results of this
significant fact.

When would the town wake up, not only to a little nerve, but to the
usefulness of a Ranger?

Three days afterward Steele told me a woman accosted him on the street.
She seemed a poor, hardworking person, plain spoken and honest.

Her husband did not drink enough to complain of, but he liked to gamble
and he had been fleeced by a crooked game in Jack Martin's saloon. Other
wives could make the same complaints. It was God's blessing for such
women that Ranger Steele had come to Linrock.

Of course, he could not get back the lost money, but would it be
possible to close Martin's place, or at least break up the crooked game?

Steele had asked this woman, whose name was Price, how much her husband
had lost, and, being told, he assured her that if he found evidence of
cheating, not only would he get back the money, but also he would shut
up Martin's place.

Steele instructed me to go that night to the saloon in question and get
in the game. I complied, and, in order not to be overcarefully sized up
by the dealer, I pretended to be well under the influence of liquor.

By nine o'clock, when Steele strolled in, I had the game well studied,
and a more flagrantly crooked one I had never sat in. It was barefaced
robbery.

Steele and I had agreed upon a sign from me, because he was not so adept
in the intricacies of gambling as I was. I was not in a hurry, however,
for there was a little frecklefaced cattleman in the game, and he had
been losing, too. He had sold a bunch of stock that day and had
considerable money, which evidently he was to be deprived of before he
got started for Del Rio.

Steele stood at our backs, and I could feel his presence. He thrilled
me. He had some kind of effect on the others, especially the dealer, who
was honest enough while the Ranger looked on.

When, however, Steele shifted his attention to other tables and players
our dealer reverted to his crooked work. I was about to make a
disturbance, when the little cattleman, leaning over, fire in his eye
and gun in hand, made it for me.

Evidently he was a keener and nervier gambler than he had been taken
for. There might have been gun-play right then if Steele had not
interfered.

"Hold on!" he yelled, leaping for our table. "Put up your gun!"

"Who are you?" demanded the cattleman, never moving. "Better keep out of
this."

"I'm Steele. Put up your gun."

"You're thet Ranger, hey?" replied the other. "All right! But just a
minute. I want this dealer to sit quiet. I've been robbed. And I want my
money back."

Certainly the dealer and everyone else round the table sat quiet while
the cattleman coolly held his gun leveled.

"Crooked game?" asked Steele, bending over the table. "Show me."

It did not take the aggrieved gambler more than a moment to prove his
assertion. Steele, however, desired corroboration from others beside the
cattleman, and one by one he questioned them.

To my surprise, one of the players admitted his conviction that the game
was not straight.

"What do you say?" demanded Steele of me.

"Worse'n a hold-up, Mr. Ranger," I burst out. "Let me show you."

Deftly I made the dealer's guilt plain to all, and then I seconded the
cattleman's angry claim for lost money. The players from other tables
gathered round, curious, muttering.

And just then Martin strolled in. His appearance was not prepossessing.

"What's this holler?" he asked, and halted as he saw the cattleman's gun
still in line with the dealer.

"Martin, you know what it's for," replied Steele. "Take your dealer and
dig--unless you want to see me clean out your place."

Sullen and fierce, Martin stood looking from Steele to the cattleman
and then the dealer. Some men in the crowd muttered, and that was a
signal for Steele to shove the circle apart and get out, back to the
wall.

The cattleman rose slowly in the center, pulling another gun, and he
certainly looked business to me.

"Wal, Ranger, I reckon I'll hang round an' see you ain't bothered none,"
he said. "Friend," he went on, indicating me with a slight wave of one
extended gun, "jest rustle the money in sight. We'll square up after the
show."

I reached out and swept the considerable sum toward me, and, pocketing
it, I too rose, ready for what might come.

"You-all give me elbow room!" yelled Steele at Martin and his cowed
contingent.

Steele looked around, evidently for some kind of implement, and, espying
a heavy ax in a corner, he grasped it, and, sweeping it to and fro as if
it had been a buggy-whip, he advanced on the faro layout. The crowd fell
back, edging toward the door.

One crashing blow wrecked the dealer's box and table, sending them
splintering among the tumbled chairs. Then the giant Ranger began to
spread further ruin about him.

Martin's place was rough and bare, of the most primitive order, and like
a thousand other dens of its kind, consisted of a large room with adobe
walls, a rude bar of boards, piles of kegs in a corner, a stove, and a
few tables with chairs.

Steele required only one blow for each article he struck, and he
demolished it. He stove in the head of each keg.

When the dark liquor gurgled out, Martin cursed, and the crowd followed
suit. That was a loss!

The little cattleman, holding the men covered, backed them out of the
room, Martin needing a plain, stern word to put him out entirely. I went
out, too, for I did not want to miss any moves on the part of that gang.

Close behind me came the cattleman, the kind of cool, nervy Texan I
liked. He had Martin well judged, too, for there was no evidence of any
bold resistance.

But there were shouts and loud acclamations; and these, with the
crashing blows of Steele's ax, brought a curious and growing addition to
the crowd.

Soon sodden thuds from inside the saloon and red dust pouring out the
door told that Steele was attacking the walls of Martin's place. Those
adobe bricks when old and crumbly were easily demolished.

Steele made short work of the back wall, and then he smashed out half of
the front of the building. That seemed to satisfy him.

When he stepped out of the dust he was wet with sweat, dirty, and
disheveled, hot with his exertion--a man whose great stature and
muscular development expressed a wonderful physical strength and energy.
And his somber face, with the big gray eyes, like open furnaces,
expressed a passion equal to his strength.

Perhaps only then did wild and lawless Linrock grasp the real
significance of this Ranger.

Steele threw the ax at Martin's feet.

"Martin, don't reopen here," he said curtly. "Don't start another place
in Linrock. If you do--jail at Austin for years."

Martin, livid and scowling, yet seemingly dazed with what had occurred,
slunk away, accompanied by his cronies. Steele took the money I had
appropriated, returned to me what I had lost, did likewise with the
cattleman, and then, taking out the sum named by Mrs. Price, he divided
the balance with the other players who had been in the game.

Then he stalked off through the crowd as if he knew that men who slunk
from facing him would not have nerve enough to attack him even from
behind.

"Wal, damn me!" ejaculated the little cattleman in mingled admiration
and satisfaction. "So thet's that Texas Ranger, Steele, hey? Never seen
him before. All Texas, thet Ranger!"

I lingered downtown as much to enjoy the sensation as to gain the
different points of view.

No doubt about the sensation! In one hour every male resident of
Linrock and almost every female had viewed the wreck of Martin's place.
A fire could not have created half the excitement.

And in that excitement both men and women gave vent to speech they might
not have voiced at a calmer moment. The women, at least, were not afraid
to talk, and I made mental note of the things they said.

"Did he do it all alone?"

"Thank God a _man's_ come to Linrock."

"Good for Molly Price!"

"Oh, it'll make bad times for Linrock."

It almost seemed that all the women were glad, and this was in itself a
vindication of the Ranger's idea of law.

The men, however--Blandy, proprietor of the Hope So, and others of his
ilk, together with the whole brood of idle gaming loungers, and in fact
even storekeepers, ranchers, cowboys--all shook their heads sullenly or
doubtfully.

Striking indeed now was the absence of any joking. Steele had showed his
hand, and, as one gambler said: "It's a hard hand to call."

The truth was, this Ranger Service was hateful to the free-and-easy
Texan who lived by anything except hard and honest work, and it was
damnably hateful to the lawless class. Steele's authority, now obvious
to all, was unlimited; it could go as far as he had power to carry it.

From present indications that power might be considerable. The work of
native sheriffs and constables in western Texas had been a farce, an
utter failure. If an honest native of a community undertook to be a
sheriff he became immediately a target for rowdy cowboys and other
vicious elements.

Many a town south and west of San Antonio owed its peace and prosperity
to Rangers, and only to them. They had killed or driven out the
criminals. They interpreted the law for themselves, and it was only such
an attitude toward law--the stern, uncompromising, implacable
extermination of the lawless--that was going to do for all Texas what it
had done for part.

Steele was the driving wedge that had begun to split Linrock--split the
honest from dominance by the dishonest. To be sure, Steele might be
killed at any moment, and that contingency was voiced in the growl of
one sullen man who said: "Wot the hell are we up against? Ain't somebody
goin' to plug this Ranger?"

It was then that the thing for which Steele stood, the Ranger
Service--to help, to save, to defend, to punish, with such somber menace
of death as seemed embodied in his cold attitude toward resistance--took
hold of Linrock and sunk deep into both black and honest hearts.

It was what was behind Steele that seemed to make him more than an
officer--a man.

I could feel how he began to loom up, the embodiment of a powerful
force--the Ranger Service--the fame of which, long known to this lawless
Pecos gang, but scouted as a vague and distant thing, now became an
actuality, a Ranger in the flesh, whose surprising attributes included
both the law and the enforcement of it.

When I reached the ranch the excitement had preceded me. Miss Sampson
and Sally, both talking at once, acquainted me with the fact that they
had been in a store on the main street a block or more from Martin's
place.

They had seen the crowd, heard the uproar; and, as they had been
hurriedly started toward home by their attendant Dick, they had
encountered Steele stalking by.

"He looked grand!" exclaimed Sally.

Then I told the girls the whole story in detail.

"Russ, is it true, just as you tell it?" inquired Diane earnestly.

"Absolutely. I know Mrs. Price went to Steele with her trouble. I was in
Martin's place when he entered. Also I was playing in the crooked game.
And I saw him wreck Martin's place. Also, I heard him forbid Martin to
start another place in Linrock."

"Then he does do splendid things," she said softly, as if affirming to
herself.

I walked on then, having gotten a glimpse of Colonel Sampson in the
background. Before I reached the corrals Sally came running after me,
quite flushed and excited.

"Russ, my uncle wants to see you," she said. "He's in a bad temper.
Don't lose yours, please."

She actually took my hand. What a child she was, in all ways except that
fatal propensity to flirt. Her statement startled me out of any further
thought of her. Why did Sampson want to see me? He never noticed me. I
dreaded facing him--not from fear, but because I must see more and more
of the signs of guilt in Diane's father.

He awaited me on the porch. As usual, he wore riding garb, but evidently
he had not been out so far this day. He looked worn. There was a furtive
shadow in his eyes. The haughty, imperious temper, despite Sally's
conviction, seemed to be in abeyance.

"Russ, what's this I hear about Martin's saloon being cleaned out?" he
asked. "Dick can't give particulars."

Briefly and concisely I told the colonel exactly what had happened. He
chewed his cigar, then spat it out with an unintelligible exclamation.

"Martin's no worse than others," he said. "Blandy leans to crooked faro.
I've tried to stop that, anyway. If Steele can, more power to him!"

Sampson turned on his heel then and left me with a queer feeling of
surprise and pity.

He had surprised me before, but he had never roused the least sympathy.
It was probably that Sampson was indeed powerless, no matter what his
position.

I had known men before who had become involved in crime, yet were too
manly to sanction a crookedness they could not help.

Miss Sampson had been standing in her door. I could tell she had heard;
she looked agitated. I knew she had been talking to her father.

"Russ, he hates the Ranger," she said. "That's what I fear. It'll bring
trouble on us. Besides, like everybody here, he's biased. He can't see
anything good in Steele. Yet he says: 'More power to him!' I'm
mystified, and, oh, I'm between two fires!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Steele's next noteworthy achievement was as new to me as it was strange
to Linrock. I heard a good deal about it from my acquaintances, some
little from Steele, and the concluding incident I saw and heard myself.

Andy Vey was a broken-down rustler whose activity had ceased and who
spent his time hanging on at the places frequented by younger and better
men of his kind. As he was a parasite, he was often thrown out of the
dens.

Moreover, it was an open secret that he had been a rustler, and the men
with whom he associated had not yet, to most of Linrock, become known as
such.

One night Vey had been badly beaten in some back room of a saloon and
carried out into a vacant lot and left there. He lay there all that
night and all the next day. Probably he would have died there had not
Steele happened along.

The Ranger gathered up the crippled rustler, took him home, attended to
his wounds, nursed him, and in fact spent days in the little adobe house
with him.

During this time I saw Steele twice, at night out in our rendezvous. He
had little to communicate, but was eager to hear when I had seen Jim
Hoden, Morton, Wright, Sampson, and all I could tell about them, and the
significance of things in town.

Andy Vey recovered, and it was my good fortune to be in the Hope So when
he came in and addressed a crowd of gamesters there.

"Fellers," he said, "I'm biddin' good-by to them as was once my friends.
I'm leavin' Linrock. An' I'm askin' some of you to take thet good-by an'
a partin' word to them as did me dirt.

"I ain't a-goin' to say if I'd crossed the trail of this Ranger years
ago thet I'd of turned round an' gone straight. But mebbe I
would--mebbe. There's a hell of a lot a man doesn't know till too late.
I'm old now, ready fer the bone pile, an' it doesn't matter. But I've
got a head on me yet, an' I want to give a hunch to thet gang who done
me. An' that hunch wants to go around an' up to the big guns of Pecos.

"This Texas Star Ranger was the feller who took me in. I'd of died like
a poisoned coyote but fer him. An' he talked to me. He gave me money to
git out of Pecos. Mebbe everybody'll think he helped me because he
wanted me to squeal. To squeal who's who round these rustler diggin's.
Wal, he never asked me. Mebbe he seen I wasn't a squealer. But I'm
thinkin' he wouldn't ask a feller thet nohow.

"An' here's my hunch. Steele has spotted the outfit. Thet ain't so much,
mebbe. But I've been with him, an' I'm old figgerin' men. Jest as sure
as God made little apples he's a goin' to put thet outfit through--or
he's a-goin' to kill them!"




Chapter 6

ENTER JACK BLOME


Strange that the narrating of this incident made Diane Sampson unhappy.

When I told her she exhibited one flash of gladness, such as any woman
might have shown for a noble deed and then she became thoughtful, almost
gloomy, sad. I could not understand her complex emotions. Perhaps she
contrasted Steele with her father; perhaps she wanted to believe in
Steele and dared not; perhaps she had all at once seen the Ranger in his
true light, and to her undoing.

She bade me take Sally for a ride and sought her room. I had my
misgivings when I saw Sally come out in that trim cowgirl suit and look
at me as if to say this day would be my Waterloo.

But she rode hard and long ahead of me before she put any machinations
into effect. The first one found me with a respectful demeanor but an
internal conflict.

"Russ, tighten my cinch," she said when I caught up with her.

Dismounting, I drew the cinch up another hole and fastened it.

"My boot's unlaced, too," she added, slipping a shapely foot out of the
stirrup.

To be sure, it was very much unlaced. I had to take off my gloves to
lace it up, and I did it heroically, with bent head and outward calm,
when all the time I was mad to snatch the girl out of the saddle and
hold her tight or run off with her or do some other fool thing.

"Russ, I believe Diane's in love with Steele," she said soberly, with
the sweet confidence she sometimes manifested in me.

"Small wonder. It's in the air," I replied.

She regarded me doubtfully.

"It was," she retorted demurely.

"The fickleness of women is no new thing to me. I didn't expect Waters
to last long."

"Certainly not when there are nicer fellows around. One, anyway, when he
cares."

A little brown hand slid out of its glove and dropped to my shoulder.

"Make up. You've been hateful lately. Make up with me."

It was not so much what she said as the sweet tone of her voice and the
nearness of her that made a tumult within me. I felt the blood tingle to
my face.

"Why should I make up with you?" I queried in self defense. "You are
only flirting. You won't--you can't ever be anything to me, really."

Sally bent over me and I had not the nerve to look up.

"Never mind things--really," she replied. "The future's far off. Let it
alone. We're together. I--I like you, Russ. And I've got to be--to be
loved. There. I never confessed that to any other man. You've been
hateful when we might have had such fun. The rides in the sun, in the
open with the wind in our faces. The walks at night in the moonlight.
Russ, haven't you missed something?"

The sweetness and seductiveness of her, the little luring devil of her,
irresistible as they were, were no more irresistible than the
naturalness, the truth of her.

I trembled even before I looked up into her flushed face and arch eyes;
and after that I knew if I could not frighten her out of this daring
mood I would have to yield despite my conviction that she only trifled.
As my manhood, as well as duty to Steele, forced me to be unyielding,
all that was left seemed to be to frighten her.

The instant this was decided a wave of emotion--love, regret,
bitterness, anger--surged over me, making me shake. I felt the skin on
my face tighten and chill. I grasped her with strength that might have
need to hold a plunging, unruly horse. I hurt her. I held her as in a
vise.

And the action, the feel of her, her suddenly uttered cry wrought
against all pretense, hurt me as my brutality hurt her, and then I spoke
what was hard, passionate truth.

"Girl, you're playing with fire!" I cried out hoarsely. "I love
you--love you as I'd want my sister loved. I asked you to marry me. That
was proof, if it was foolish. Even if you were on the square, which
you're not, we couldn't ever be anything to each other. Understand?
There's a reason, besides your being above me. I can't stand it. Stop
playing with me or I'll--I'll..."

Whatever I meant to say was not spoken, for Sally turned deathly white,
probably from my grasp and my looks as well as my threat.

I let go of her, and stepping back to my horse choked down my emotion.

"Russ!" she faltered, and there was womanliness and regret trembling
with the fear in her voice. "I--I am on the square."

That had touched the real heart of the girl.

"If you are, then play the game square," I replied darkly.

"I will, Russ, I promise. I'll never tease or coax you again. If I do,
then I'll deserve what you--what I get. But, Russ, don't think me a--a
four-flush."

All the long ride home we did not exchange another word. The traveling
gait of Sally's horse was a lope, that of mine a trot; and therefore, to
my relief, she was always out in front.

As we neared the ranch, however, Sally slowed down until I caught up
with her; and side by side we rode the remainder of the way. At the
corrals, while I unsaddled, she lingered.

"Russ, you didn't tell me if you agreed with me about Diane," she said
finally.

"Maybe you're right. I hope she's fallen in love with Steele. Lord knows
I hope so," I blurted out.

I bit my tongue. There was no use in trying to be as shrewd with women
as I was with men. I made no reply.

"Misery loves company. Maybe that's why," she added. "You told me Steele
lost his head over Diane at first sight. Well, we all have company. Good
night, Russ."

That night I told Steele about the singular effect the story of his
treatment of Vey had upon Miss Sampson. He could not conceal his
feelings. I read him like an open book.

If she was unhappy because he did something really good, then she was
unhappy because she was realizing she had wronged him.

Steele never asked questions, but the hungry look in his eyes was enough
to make even a truthful fellow exaggerate things.

I told him how Diane was dressed, how her face changed with each
emotion, how her eyes burned and softened and shadowed, how her voice
had been deep and full when she admitted her father hated him, how much
she must have meant when she said she was between two fires. I divined
how he felt and I tried to satisfy in some little measure his craving
for news of her.

When I had exhausted my fund and stretched my imagination I was rewarded
by being told that I was a regular old woman for gossip.

Much taken back by this remarkable statement I could but gape at my
comrade. Irritation had followed shortly upon his curiosity and
pleasure, and then the old sane mind reasserted itself, the old stern
look, a little sad now, replaced the glow, the strange eagerness of
youth on his face.

"Son, I beg your pardon," he said, with his hand on my shoulder. "We're
Rangers, but we can't help being human. To speak right out, it seems two
sweet and lovable girls have come, unfortunately for us all, across the
dark trail we're on. Let us find what solace we can in the hope that
somehow, God only knows how, in doing our duty as Rangers we may yet be
doing right by these two innocent girls. I ask you, as my friend, please
do not speak again to me of--Miss Sampson."

I left him and went up the quiet trail with the thick shadows all around
me and the cold stars overhead; and I was sober in thought, sick at
heart for him as much as for myself, and I tortured my mind in fruitless
conjecture as to what the end of this strange and fateful adventure
would be.

I discovered that less and less the old wild spirit abided with me and I
become conscious of a dull, deep-seated ache in my breast, a pang in the
bone.

From that day there was a change in Diane Sampson. She became feverishly
active. She wanted to ride, to see for herself what was going on in
Linrock, to learn of that wild Pecos county life at first hand.

She made such demands on my time now that I scarcely ever found an hour
to be with or near Steele until after dark. However, as he was playing a
waiting game on the rustlers, keeping out of the resorts for the
present, I had not great cause for worry. Hoden was slowly gathering men
together, a band of trustworthy ones, and until this organization was
complete and ready, Steele thought better to go slow.

It was of little use for me to remonstrate with Miss Sampson when she
refused to obey a distracted and angry father. I began to feel sorry for
Sampson. He was an unscrupulous man, but he loved this daughter who
belonged to another and better and past side of his life.

I heard him appeal to her to go back to Louisiana; to let him take her
home, giving as urgent reason the probability of trouble for him. She
could not help, could only handicap him.

She agreed to go, provided he sold his property, took the best of his
horses and went with her back to the old home to live there the rest of
their lives. He replied with considerable feeling that he wished he
could go, but it was impossible. Then that settled the matter for her,
she averred.

Failing to persuade her to leave Linrock, he told her to keep to the
ranch. Naturally, in spite of his anger, Miss Sampson refused to obey;
and she frankly told him that it was the free, unfettered life of the
country, the riding here and there that appealed so much to her.

Sampson came to me a little later and his worn face showed traces of
internal storm.

"Russ, for a while there I wanted to get rid of you," he said. "I've
changed. Diane always was a spoiled kid. Now she's a woman. Something's
fired her blood. Maybe it's this damned wild country. Anyway, she's got
the bit between her teeth. She'll run till she's run herself out.

"Now, it seems the safety of Diane, and Sally, too, has fallen into your
hands. The girls won't have one of my cowboys near them. Lately they've
got shy of George, too. Between you and me I want to tell you that
conditions here in Pecos are worse than they've seemed since you-all
reached the ranch. But bad work will break out again--it's coming soon.

"I can't stop it. The town will be full of the hardest gang in western
Texas. My daughter and Sally would not be safe if left alone to go
anywhere. With you, perhaps, they'll be safe. Can I rely on you?"

"Yes, Sampson, you sure can," I replied. "I'm on pretty good terms with
most everybody in town. I think I can say none of the tough set who hang
out down there would ever made any move while I'm with the girls. But
I'll be pretty careful to avoid them, and particularly strange fellows
who may come riding in.

"And if any of them do meet us and start trouble, I'm going for my gun,
that's all. There won't be any talk."

"Good! I'll back you," Sampson replied. "Understand, Russ, I didn't want
you here, but I always had you sized up as a pretty hard nut, a man not
to be trifled with. You've got a bad name. Diane insists the name's not
deserved. She'd trust you with herself under any circumstances. And the
kid, Sally, she'd be fond of you if it wasn't for the drink. Have you
been drunk a good deal? Straight now, between you and me."

"Not once," I replied.

"George's a liar then. He's had it in for you since that day at
Sanderson. Look out you two don't clash. He's got a temper, and when
he's drinking he's a devil. Keep out of his way."

"I've stood a good deal from Wright, and guess I can stand more."

"All right, Russ," he continued, as if relieved. "Chuck the drink and
cards for a while and keep an eye on the girls. When my affairs
straighten out maybe I'll make you a proposition."

Sampson left me material for thought. Perhaps it was not only the
presence of a Ranger in town that gave him concern, nor the wilfulness
of his daughter. There must be internal strife in the rustler gang with
which we had associated him.

Perhaps a menace of publicity, rather than risk, was the cause of the
wearing strain on him. I began to get a closer insight into Sampson, and
in the absence of any conclusive evidence of his personal baseness I
felt pity for him.

In the beginning he had opposed me just because I did not happen to be a
cowboy he had selected. This latest interview with me, amounting in some
instances to confidence, proved absolutely that he had not the slightest
suspicion that I was otherwise than the cowboy I pretended to be.

Another interesting deduction was that he appeared to be out of patience
with Wright. In fact, I imagined I sensed something of fear and distrust
in this spoken attitude toward his relative. Not improbably here was the
internal strife between Sampson and Wright, and there flashed into my
mind, absolutely without reason, an idea that the clash was over Diane
Sampson.

I scouted this intuitive idea as absurd; but, just the same, it refused
to be dismissed.

As I turned my back on the coarse and exciting life in the saloons and
gambling hells, and spent all my time except when sleeping, out in the
windy open under blue sky and starry heaven, my spirit had an uplift.

I was glad to be free of that job. It was bad enough to have to go into
these dens to arrest men, let alone living with them, almost being one.

Diane Sampson noted a change in me, attributed it to the absence of the
influence of drink, and she was glad. Sally made no attempt to conceal
her happiness; and to my dismay, she utterly failed to keep her promise
not to tease or tempt me further.

She was adorable, distracting.

We rode every day and almost all day. We took our dinner and went clear
to the foothills to return as the sun set. We visited outlying ranches,
water-holes, old adobe houses famous in one way or another as scenes of
past fights of rustlers and ranchers.

We rode to the little village of Sampson, and half-way to Sanderson, and
all over the country.

There was no satisfying Miss Sampson with rides, new places, new faces,
new adventures. And every time we rode out she insisted on first riding
through Linrock; and every time we rode home she insisted on going back
that way.

We visited all the stores, the blacksmith, the wagon shop, the feed and
grain houses--everywhere that she could find excuse for visiting. I had
to point out to her all the infamous dens in town, and all the lawless
and lounging men we met.

She insisted upon being shown the inside of the Hope So, to the extreme
confusion of that bewildered resort.

I pretended to be blind to this restless curiosity. Sally understood the
cause, too, and it divided her between a sweet gravity and a naughty
humor.

The last, however, she never evinced in sight or hearing of Diane.

It seemed that we were indeed fated to cross the path of Vaughn Steele.
We saw him working round his adobe house; then we saw him on horseback.
Once we met him face to face in a store.

He gazed steadily into Diane Sampson's eyes and went his way without any
sign of recognition. There was red in her face when he passed and white
when he had gone.

That day she rode as I had never seen her, risking her life, unmindful
of her horse.

Another day we met Steele down in the valley, where, inquiry discovered
to us, he had gone to the home of an old cattleman who lived alone and
was ill.

Last and perhaps most significant of all these meetings was the one when
we were walking tired horses home through the main street of Linrock and
came upon Steele just in time to see him in action.

It happened at a corner where the usual slouchy, shirt-sleeved loungers
were congregated. They were in high glee over the predicament of one
ruffian who had purchased or been given a poor, emaciated little burro
that was on his last legs. The burro evidently did not want to go with
its new owner, who pulled on a halter and then viciously swung the end
of the rope to make welts on the worn and scarred back.

If there was one thing that Diane Sampson could not bear it was to see
an animal in pain. She passionately loved horses, and hated the sight of
a spur or whip.

When we saw the man beating the little burro she cried out to me:

"Make the brute stop!"

I might have made a move had I not on the instant seen Steele heaving
into sight round the corner.

Just then the fellow, whom I now recognized to be a despicable character
named Andrews, began to bestow heavy and brutal kicks upon the body of
the little burro. These kicks sounded deep, hollow, almost like the boom
of a drum.

The burro uttered the strangest sound I ever heard issue from any beast
and it dropped in its tracks with jerking legs that told any horseman
what had happened. Steele saw the last swings of Andrews' heavy boot. He
yelled. It was a sharp yell that would have made anyone start. But it
came too late, for the burro had dropped.

Steele knocked over several of the jeering men to get to Andrews. He
kicked the fellow's feet from under him, sending him hard to the ground.

Then Steele picked up the end of the halter and began to swing it
powerfully. Resounding smacks mingled with hoarse bellows of fury and
pain. Andrews flopped here and there, trying to arise, but every time
the heavy knotted halter beat him down.

Presently Steele stopped. Andrews rose right in front of the Ranger, and
there, like the madman he was, he went for his gun.

But it scarcely leaped from its holster when Steele's swift hand
intercepted it. Steele clutched Andrews' arm.

Then came a wrench, a cracking of bones, a scream of agony.

The gun dropped into the dust; and in a moment of wrestling fury
Andrews, broken, beaten down, just able to moan, lay beside it.

Steele, so cool and dark for a man who had acted with such passionate
swiftness, faced the others as if to dare them to move. They neither
moved nor spoke, and then he strode away.

Miss Sampson did not speak a word while we were riding the rest of the
way home, but she was strangely white of face and dark of eye. Sally
could not speak fast enough to say all she felt.

And I, of course, had my measure of feelings. One of them was that as
sure as the sun rose and set it was written that Diane Sampson was to
love Vaughn Steele.

I could not read her mind, but I had a mind of my own.

How could any woman, seeing this maligned and menaced Ranger, whose
life was in danger every moment he spent on the streets, in the light of
his action on behalf of a poor little beast, help but wonder and brood
over the magnificent height he might reach if he had love--passion--a
woman for his inspiration?

It was the day after this incident that, as Sally, Diane, and I were
riding homeward on the road from Sampson, I caught sight of a group of
dark horses and riders swiftly catching up with us.

We were on the main road, in plain sight of town and passing by ranches;
nevertheless, I did not like the looks of the horsemen and grew uneasy.
Still, I scarcely thought it needful to race our horses just to reach
town a little ahead of these strangers.

Accordingly, they soon caught up with us.

They were five in number, all dark-faced except one, dark-clad and
superbly mounted on dark bays and blacks. They had no pack animals and,
for that matter, carried no packs at all.

Four of them, at a swinging canter, passed us, and the fifth pulled his
horse to suit our pace and fell in between Sally and me.

"Good day," he said pleasantly to me. "Don't mind my ridin' in with
you-all, I hope?"

Considering his pleasant approach, I could not but be civil.

He was a singularly handsome fellow, at a quick glance, under forty
years, with curly, blond hair, almost gold, a skin very fair for that
country, and the keenest, clearest, boldest blue eyes I had ever seen in
a man.

"You're Russ, I reckon," he said. "Some of my men have seen you ridin'
round with Sampson's girls. I'm Jack Blome."

He did not speak that name with any flaunt or flourish. He merely stated
it.

Blome, the rustler! I grew tight all over.

Still, manifestly there was nothing for me to do but return his
pleasantry. I really felt less uneasiness after he had made himself
known to me. And without any awkwardness, I introduced him to the girls.

He took off his sombrero and made gallant bows to both.

Miss Sampson had heard of him and his record, and she could not help a
paleness, a shrinking, which, however, he did not appear to notice.
Sally had been dying to meet a real rustler, and here he was, a very
prince of rascals.

But I gathered that she would require a little time before she could be
natural. Blome seemed to have more of an eye for Sally than for Diane.
"Do you like Pecos?" he asked Sally.

"Out here? Oh, yes, indeed!" she replied.

"Like ridin'?"

"I love horses."

Like almost every man who made Sally's acquaintance, he hit upon the
subject best calculated to make her interesting to free-riding, outdoor
Western men.

That he loved a thoroughbred horse himself was plain. He spoke naturally
to Sally with interest, just as I had upon first meeting her, and he
might not have been Jack Blome, for all the indication he gave of the
fact in his talk.

But the look of the man was different. He was a desperado, one of the
dashing, reckless kind--more famous along the Pecos and Rio Grande than
more really desperate men. His attire proclaimed a vanity seldom seen in
any Westerner except of that unusual brand, yet it was neither gaudy or
showy.

One had to be close to Blome to see the silk, the velvet, the gold, the
fine leather. When I envied a man's spurs then they were indeed worth
coveting.

Blome had a short rifle and a gun in saddle-sheaths. My sharp eye,
running over him, caught a row of notches on the bone handle of the big
Colt he packed.

It was then that the marshal, the Ranger in me, went hot under the
collar. The custom that desperadoes and gun-fighters had of cutting a
notch on their guns for every man killed was one of which the mere
mention made my gorge rise.

At the edge of town Blome doffed his sombrero again, said "_Adios_," and
rode on ahead of us. And it was then I was hard put to it to keep track
of the queries, exclamations, and other wild talk of two very much
excited young ladies. I wanted to think; I _needed_ to think.

"Wasn't he lovely? Oh, I could adore him!" rapturously uttered Miss
Sally Langdon several times, to my ultimate disgust.

Also, after Blome had ridden out of sight, Miss Sampson lost the evident
effect of his sinister presence, and she joined Miss Langdon in paying
the rustler compliments, too. Perhaps my irritation was an indication of
the quick and subtle shifting of my mind to harsher thought.

"Jack Blome!" I broke in upon their adulations. "Rustler and gunman. Did
you see the notches on his gun? Every notch for a man he's killed! For
weeks reports have come to Linrock that soon as he could get round to it
he'd ride down and rid the community of that bothersome fellow, that
Texas Ranger! He's come to kill Vaughn Steele!"




Chapter 7

DIANE AND VAUGHN


Then as gloom descended on me with my uttered thought, my heart smote me
at Sally's broken: "Oh, Russ! No! No!" Diane Sampson bent dark, shocked
eyes upon the hill and ranch in front of her; but they were sightless,
they looked into space and eternity, and in them I read the truth
suddenly and cruelly revealed to her--she loved Steele!

I found it impossible to leave Miss Sampson with the impression I had
given. My own mood fitted a kind of ruthless pleasure in seeing her
suffer through love as I had intimation I was to suffer.

But now, when my strange desire that she should love Steele had its
fulfilment, and my fiendish subtleties to that end had been crowned with
success, I was confounded in pity and the enormity of my crime. For it
had been a crime to make, or help to make, this noble and beautiful
woman love a Ranger, the enemy of her father, and surely the author of
her coming misery. I felt shocked at my work. I tried to hang an excuse
on my old motive that through her love we might all be saved. When it
was too late, however, I found that this motive was wrong and perhaps
without warrant.

We rode home in silence. Miss Sampson, contrary to her usual custom of
riding to the corrals or the porch, dismounted at a path leading in
among the trees and flowers. "I want to rest, to think before I go in,"
she said.

Sally accompanied me to the corrals. As our horses stopped at the gate I
turned to find confirmation of my fears in Sally's wet eyes.

"Russ," she said, "it's worse than we thought."

"Worse? I should say so," I replied.

"It'll about kill her. She never cared that way for any man. When the
Sampson women love, they love."

"Well, you're lucky to be a Langdon," I retorted bitterly.

"I'm Sampson enough to be unhappy," she flashed back at me, "and I'm
Langdon enough to have some sense. You haven't any sense or kindness,
either. Why'd you want to blurt out that Jack Blome was here to kill
Steele?"

"I'm ashamed, Sally," I returned, with hanging head. "I've been a brute.
I've wanted her to love Steele. I thought I had a reason, but now it
seems silly. Just now I wanted to see how much she did care.

"Sally, the other day you said misery loved company. That's the trouble.
I'm sore--bitter. I'm like a sick coyote that snaps at everything. I've
wanted you to go into the very depths of despair. But I couldn't send
you. So I took out my spite on poor Miss Sampson. It was a damn unmanly
thing for me to do."

"Oh, it's not so bad as all that. But you might have been less abrupt.
Russ, you seem to take an--an awful tragic view of your--your own case."

"Tragic? Hah!" I cried like the villain in the play. "What other way
could I look at it? I tell you I love you so I can't sleep or do
anything."

"That's not tragic. When you've no chance, _then_ that's tragic."

Sally, as swiftly as she had blushed, could change into that deadly
sweet mood. She did both now. She seemed warm, softened, agitated. How
could this be anything but sincere? I felt myself slipping; so I laughed
harshly.

"Chance! I've no chance on earth."

"Try!" she whispered.

But I caught myself in time. Then the shock of bitter renunciation made
it easy for me to simulate anger.

"You promised not to--not to--" I began, choking. My voice was hoarse
and it broke, matters surely far removed from pretense.

I had seen Sally Langdon in varying degrees of emotion, but never as she
appeared now. She was pale and she trembled a little. If it was not
fright, then I could not tell what it was. But there were contrition and
earnestness about her, too.

"Russ, I know. I promised not to--to tease--to tempt you anymore," she
faltered. "I've broken it. I'm ashamed. I haven't played the game
square. But I couldn't--I can't help myself. I've got sense enough not
to engage myself to you, but I can't keep from loving you. I can't let
you alone. There--if you want it on the square! What's more, I'll go on
as I have done unless you keep away from me. I don't care what I
deserve--what you do--I will--I will!"

She had begun falteringly and she ended passionately.

Somehow I kept my head, even though my heart pounded like a hammer and
the blood drummed in my ears. It was the thought of Steele that saved
me. But I felt cold at the narrow margin. I had reached a point, I
feared, where a kiss, one touch from this bewildering creature of fire
and change and sweetness would make me put her before Steele and my
duty.

"Sally, if you dare break your promise again, you'll wish you never had
been born," I said with all the fierceness at my command.

"I wish that now. And you can't bluff me, Mr. Gambler. I may have no
hand to play, but you can't make me lay it down," she replied.

Something told me Sally Langdon was finding herself; that presently I
could not frighten her, and then--then I would be doomed.

"Why, if I got drunk, I might do anything," I said cool and hard now.
"Cut off your beautiful chestnut hair for bracelets for my arms."

Sally laughed, but she was still white. She was indeed finding herself.
"If you ever get drunk again you can't kiss me any more. And if you
don't--you can."

I felt myself shake and, with all of the iron will I could assert, I hid
from her the sweetness of this thing that was my weakness and her
strength.

"I might lasso you from my horse, drag you through the cactus," I added
with the implacability of an Apache.

"Russ!" she cried. Something in this last ridiculous threat had found a
vital mark. "After all, maybe those awful stories Joe Harper told about
you were true."

"They sure were," I declared with great relief. "And now to forget
ourselves. I'm more than sorry I distressed Miss Sampson; more than
sorry because what I said wasn't on the square. Blome, no doubt, has
come to Linrock after Steele. His intention is to kill him. I said
that--let Miss Sampson think it all meant fatality to the Ranger. But,
Sally, I don't believe that Blome can kill Steele any more than--than
you can."

"Why?" she asked; and she seemed eager, glad.

"Because he's not man enough. That's all, without details. You need not
worry; and I wish you'd go tell Miss Sampson--"

"Go yourself," interrupted Sally. "I think she's afraid of my eyes. But
she won't fear you'd guess her secret.

"Go to her, Russ. Find some excuse to tell her. Say you thought it over,
believed she'd be distressed about what might never happen. Go--and
afterward pray for your sins, you queer, good-natured, love-meddling
cowboy-devil, you!"

For once I had no retort ready for Sally. I hurried off as quickly as I
could walk in chaps and spurs.

I found Miss Sampson sitting on a bench in the shade of a tree. Her
pallor and quiet composure told of the conquering and passing of the
storm. Always she had a smile for me, and now it smote me, for I in a
sense, had betrayed her.

"Miss Sampson," I began, awkwardly yet swiftly, "I--I got to thinking it
over, and the idea struck me, maybe you felt bad about this gun-fighter
Blome coming down here to kill Steele. At first I imagined you felt sick
just because there might be blood spilled. Then I thought you've showed
interest in Steele--naturally his kind of Ranger work is bound to appeal
to women--you might be sorry it couldn't go on, you might care."

"Russ, don't beat about the bush," she said interrupting my floundering.
"You know I care."

How wonderful her eyes were then--great dark, sad gulfs with the soul of
a woman at the bottom! Almost I loved her myself; I did love her truth,
the woman in her that scorned any subterfuge.

Instantly she inspired me to command over myself. "Listen," I said.
"Jack Blome has come here to meet Steele. There will be a fight. But
Blome can't kill Steele."

"How is that? Why can't he? You said this Blome was a killer of men. You
spoke of notches on his gun. I've heard my father and my cousin, too,
speak of Blome's record. He must be a terrible ruffian. If his intent is
evil, why will he fail in it?"

"Because, Miss Sampson, when it comes to the last word, Steele will be
on the lookout and Blome won't be quick enough on the draw to kill him.
That's all."

"Quick enough on the draw? I understand, but I want to know more."

"I doubt if there's a man on the frontier to-day quick enough to kill
Steele in an even break. That means a fair fight. This Blome is
conceited. He'll make the meeting fair enough. It'll come off about like
this, Miss Sampson.

"Blome will send out his bluff--he'll begin to blow--to look for Steele.
But Steele will avoid him as long as possible--perhaps altogether,
though that's improbable. If they do meet, then Blome must force the
issue. It's interesting to figure on that. Steele affects men strangely.
It's all very well for this Blome to rant about himself and to hunt
Steele up. But the test'll come when he faces the Ranger. He never saw
Steele. He doesn't know what he's up against. He knows Steele's
reputation, but I don't mean that. I mean Steele in the flesh, his
nerve, the something that's in his eyes.

"Now, when it comes to handling a gun the man doesn't breathe who has
anything on Steele. There was an outlaw, Duane, who might have killed
Steele, had they ever met. I'll tell you Duane's story some day. A girl
saved him, made a Ranger of him, then got him to go far away from
Texas."

"That was wise. Indeed, I'd like to hear the story," she replied. "Then,
after all, Russ, in this dreadful part of Texas life, when man faces
man, it's all in the quickness of hand?"

"Absolutely. It's the draw. And Steele's a wonder. See here. Look at
this."

I stepped back and drew my gun.

"I didn't see how you did that," she said curiously. "Try it again."

I complied, and still she was not quick enough of eye to see my draw.
Then I did it slowly, explaining to her the action of hand and then of
finger. She seemed fascinated, as a woman might have been by the
striking power of a rattlesnake.

"So men's lives depend on that! How horrible for me to be interested--to
ask about it--to watch you! But I'm out here on the frontier now, caught
somehow in its wildness, and I feel a relief, a gladness to know Vaughn
Steele has the skill you claim. Thank you, Russ."

She seemed about to dismiss me then, for she rose and half turned away.
Then she hesitated. She had one hand at her breast, the other on the
bench. "Have you been with him--talked to him lately?" she asked, and a
faint rose tint came into her cheeks. But her eyes were steady, dark,
and deep, and peered through and far beyond me.

"Yes, I've met him a few times, around places."

"Did he ever speak of--of me?"

"Once or twice, and then as if he couldn't help it."

"What did he say?"

"Well, the last time he seemed hungry to hear something about you. He
didn't exactly ask, but, all the same, he was begging. So I told him."

"What?"

"Oh, how you were dressed, how you looked, what you said, what you
did--all about you. Don't be offended with me, Miss Sampson. It was real
charity. I talk too much. It's my weakness. Please don't be offended."

She never heard my apology or my entreaty. There was a kind of glory in
her eyes. Looking at her, I found a dimness hazing my sight, and when I
rubbed it away it came back.

"Then--what did he say?" This was whispered, almost shyly, and I could
scarcely believe the proud Miss Sampson stood before me.

"Why, he flew into a fury, called me an--" Hastily I caught myself.
"Well, he said if I wanted to talk to him any more not to speak of you.
He was sure unreasonable."

"Russ--you think--you told me once--he--you think he still--" She was
not facing me at all now. She had her head bent. Both hands were at her
breast, and I saw it heave. Her cheek was white as a flower, her neck
darkly, richly red with mounting blood.

I understood. And I pitied her and hated myself and marveled at this
thing, love. It made another woman out of Diane Sampson. I could
scarcely comprehend that she was asking me, almost beseechingly, for
further assurance of Steele's love. I knew nothing of women, but this
seemed strange. Then a thought sent the blood chilling back to my heart.
Had Diane Sampson guessed the guilt of her father? Was it more for his
sake than for her own that she hoped--for surely she hoped--that Steele
loved her?

Here was more mystery, more food for reflection. Only a powerful motive
or a self-leveling love could have made a woman of Diane Sampson's pride
ask such a question. Whatever her reason, I determined to assure her,
once and forever, what I knew to be true. Accordingly, I told her in
unforgettable words, with my own regard for her and love for Sally
filling my voice with emotion, how I could see that Steele loved her,
how madly he was destined to love her, how terribly hard that was going
to make his work in Linrock.

There was a stillness about her then, a light on her face, which brought
to my mind thought of Sally when I had asked her to marry me.

"Russ, I beg you--bring us together," said Miss Sampson. "Bring about a
meeting. You are my friend." Then she went swiftly away through the
flowers, leaving me there, thrilled to my soul at her betrayal of
herself, ready to die in her service, yet cursing the fatal day Vaughn
Steele had chosen me for his comrade in this tragic game.

That evening in the girls' sitting-room, where they invited me, I was
led into a discourse upon the gun-fighters, outlaws, desperadoes, and
bad men of the frontier. Miss Sampson and Sally had been, before their
arrival in Texas, as ignorant of such characters as any girls in the
North or East. They were now peculiarly interested, fascinated, and at
the same time repelled.

Miss Sampson must have placed the Rangers in one of those classes,
somewhat as Governor Smith had, and her father, too. Sally thought she
was in love with a cowboy whom she had been led to believe had as bad a
record as any. They were certainly a most persuasive and appreciative
audience. So as it was in regard to horses, if I knew any subject well,
it was this one of dangerous and bad men. Texas, and the whole
developing Southwest, was full of such characters. It was a very
difficult thing to distinguish between fighters who were bad men and
fighters who were good men. However, it was no difficult thing for one
of my calling to tell the difference between a real bad man and the
imitation "four-flush."

Then I told the girls the story of Buck Duane, famous outlaw and Ranger.
And I narrated the histories of Murrell, most terrible of
blood-spillers ever known to Texas; of Hardin, whose long career of
crime ended in the main street in Huntsville when he faced Buck Duane;
of Sandobal, the Mexican terror; of Cheseldine, Bland, Alloway, and
other outlaws of the Rio Grande; of King Fisher and Thompson and
Sterrett, all still living and still busy adding notches to their guns.

I ended my little talk by telling the story of Amos Clark, a criminal of
a higher type than most bad men, yet infinitely more dangerous because
of that. He was a Southerner of good family. After the war he went to
Dimmick County and there developed and prospered with the country. He
became the most influential citizen of his town and the richest in that
section. He held offices. He was energetic in his opposition to rustlers
and outlaws. He was held in high esteem by his countrymen. But this Amos
Clark was the leader of a band of rustlers, highwaymen, and murderers.

Captain Neal and some of his Rangers ferreted out Clark's relation to
this lawless gang, and in the end caught him red-handed. He was arrested
and eventually hanged. His case was unusual, and it furnished an example
of what was possible in that wild country. Clark had a son who was
honest and a wife whom he dearly loved, both of whom had been utterly
ignorant of the other and wicked side of life. I told this last story
deliberately, yet with some misgivings. I wanted to see--I convinced
myself it was needful for me to see--if Miss Sampson had any suspicion
of her father. To look into her face then was no easy task. But when I
did I experienced a shock, though not exactly the kind I had prepared
myself for.

She knew something; maybe she knew actually more than Steele or I;
still, if it were a crime, she had a marvelous control over her true
feelings.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jack Blome and his men had been in Linrock for several days; old Snecker
and his son Bo had reappeared, and other hard-looking customers, new to
me if not to Linrock. These helped to create a charged and waiting
atmosphere. The saloons did unusual business and were never closed.
Respectable citizens of the town were awakened in the early dawn by
rowdies carousing in the streets.

Steele kept pretty closely under cover. He did not entertain the
opinion, nor did I, that the first time he walked down the street he
would be a target for Blome and his gang. Things seldom happened that
way, and when they did happen so it was more accident than design. Blome
was setting the stage for his little drama.

Meanwhile Steele was not idle. He told me he had met Jim Hoden, Morton
and Zimmer, and that these men had approached others of like character;
a secret club had been formed and all the members were ready for action.
Steele also told me that he had spent hours at night watching the house
where George Wright stayed when he was not up at Sampson's. Wright had
almost recovered from the injury to his arm, but he still remained most
of the time indoors. At night he was visited, or at least his house was,
by strange men who were swift, stealthy, mysterious--all men who
formerly would not have been friends or neighbors.

Steele had not been able to recognize any of these night visitors, and
he did not think the time was ripe for a bold holding up of one of them.

Jim Hoden had forcibly declared and stated that some deviltry was afoot,
something vastly different from Blome's open intention of meeting the
Ranger.

Hoden was right. Not twenty-four hours after his last talk with Steele,
in which he advised quick action, he was found behind the little room of
his restaurant, with a bullet hole in his breast, dead. No one could be
found who had heard a shot.

It had been deliberate murder, for behind the bar had been left a piece
of paper rudely scrawled with a pencil:

"All friends of Ranger Steele look for the same."

Later that day I met Steele at Hoden's and was with him when he looked
at the body and the written message which spoke so tersely of the
enmity toward him. We left there together, and I hoped Steele would let
me stay with him from that moment.

"Russ, it's all in the dark," he said. "I feel Wright's hand in this."

I agreed. "I remember his face at Hoden's that day you winged him.
Because Jim swore you were wrong not to kill instead of wing him. You
were wrong."

"No, Russ, I never let feeling run wild with my head. We can't prove a
thing on Wright."

"Come on; let's hunt him up. I'll bet I can accuse him and make him show
his hand. Come on!"

That Steele found me hard to resist was all the satisfaction I got for
the anger and desire to avenge Jim Hoden that consumed me.

"Son, you'll have your belly full of trouble soon enough," replied
Steele. "Hold yourself in. Wait. Try to keep your eye on Sampson at
night. See if anyone visits him. Spy on him. I'll watch Wright."

"Don't you think you'd do well to keep out of town, especially when you
sleep?"

"Sure. I've got blankets out in the brush, and I go there every night
late and leave before daylight. But I keep a light burning in the 'dobe
house and make it look as if I were there."

"Good. That worried me. Now, what's this murder of Jim Hoden going to do
to Morton, Zimmer, and their crowd?"

"Russ, they've all got blood in their eyes. This'll make them see red.
I've only to say the word and we'll have all the backing we need."

"Have you run into Blome?"

"Once. I was across the street. He came out of the Hope So with some of
his gang. They lined up and watched me. But I went right on."

"He's here looking for trouble, Steele."

"Yes; and he'd have found it before this if I just knew his relation to
Sampson and Wright."

"Do you think Blome a dangerous man to meet?"

"Hardly. He's a genuine bad man, but for all that he's not much to be
feared. If he were quietly keeping away from trouble, then that'd be
different. Blome will probably die in his boots, thinking he's the worst
man and the quickest one on the draw in the West."

That was conclusive enough for me. The little shadow of worry that had
haunted me in spite of my confidence vanished entirely.

"Russ, for the present help me do something for Jim Hoden's family,"
went on Steele. "His wife's in bad shape. She's not a strong woman.
There are a lot of kids, and you know Jim Hoden was poor. She told me
her neighbors would keep shy of her now. They'd be afraid. Oh, it's
tough! But we can put Jim away decently and help his family."

Several days after this talk with Steele I took Miss Sampson and Sally
out to see Jim Hoden's wife and children. I knew Steele would be there
that afternoon, but I did not mention this fact to Miss Sampson. We rode
down to the little adobe house which belonged to Mrs. Hoden's people,
and where Steele and I had moved her and the children after Jim Hoden's
funeral. The house was small, but comfortable, and the yard green and
shady.

If this poor wife and mother had not been utterly forsaken by neighbors
and friends it certainly appeared so, for to my knowledge no one besides
Steele and me visited her. Miss Sampson had packed a big basket full of
good things to eat, and I carried this in front of me on the pommel as
we rode. We hitched our horses to the fence and went round to the back
of the house. There was a little porch with a stone flooring, and here
several children were playing. The door stood open. At my knock Mrs.
Hoden bade me come in. Evidently Steele was not there, so I went in with
the girls.

"Mrs. Hoden, I've brought Miss Sampson and her cousin to see you," I
said cheerfully.

The little room was not very light, there being only one window and the
door; but Mrs. Hoden could be seen plainly enough as she lay,
hollow-cheeked and haggard, on a bed. Once she had evidently been a
woman of some comeliness. The ravages of trouble and grief were there to
read in her worn face; it had not, however, any of the hard and bitter
lines that had characterized her husband's.

I wondered, considering that Sampson had ruined Hoden, how Mrs. Hoden
was going to regard the daughter of an enemy.

"So you're Roger Sampson's girl?" queried the woman, with her bright
black eyes fixed on her visitor.

"Yes," replied Miss Sampson, simply. "This is my cousin, Sally Langdon.
We've come to nurse you, take care of the children, help you in any way
you'll let us."

There was a long silence.

"Well, you look a little like Sampson," finally said Mrs. Hoden, "but
you're not at all like him. You must take after your mother. Miss
Sampson, I don't know if I can--if I _ought_ to accept anything from
you. Your father ruined my husband."

"Yes, I know," replied the girl sadly. "That's all the more reason you
should let me help you. Pray don't refuse. It will--mean so much to me."

If this poor, stricken woman had any resentment it speedily melted in
the warmth and sweetness of Miss Sampson's manner. My idea was that the
impression of Diane Sampson's beauty was always swiftly succeeded by
that of her generosity and nobility. At any rate, she had started well
with Mrs. Hoden, and no sooner had she begun to talk to the children
than both they and the mother were won.

The opening of that big basket was an event. Poor, starved little
beggars! I went out on the porch to get away from them. My feelings
seemed too easily aroused. Hard indeed would it have gone with Jim
Hoden's slayer if I could have laid my eyes on him then. However, Miss
Sampson and Sally, after the nature of tender and practical girls, did
not appear to take the sad situation to heart. The havoc had already
been wrought in that household. The needs now were cheerfulness,
kindness, help, action, and these the girls furnished with a spirit that
did me good.

"Mrs. Hoden, who dressed this baby?" presently asked Miss Sampson. I
peeped in to see a dilapidated youngster on her knees. That sight, if
any other was needed, completed my full and splendid estimate of Diane
Sampson.

"Mr. Steele," replied Mrs. Hoden.

"Mr. Steele!" exclaimed Miss Sampson.

"Yes; he's taken care of us all since--since--" Mrs. Hoden choked.

"Oh, so you've had no help but his," replied Miss Sampson hastily. "No
women? Too bad! I'll send someone, Mrs. Hoden, and I'll come myself."

"It'll be good of you," went on the older woman. "You see, Jim had few
friends--that is, right in town. And they've been afraid to help
us--afraid they'd get what poor Jim--"

"That's awful!" burst out Miss Sampson passionately. "A brave lot of
friends! Mrs. Hoden, don't you worry any more. We'll take care of you.
Here, Sally help me. Whatever is the matter with baby's dress?"
Manifestly Miss Sampson had some difficulty in subduing her emotion.

"Why, it's on hind side before," declared Sally. "I guess Mr. Steele
hasn't dressed many babies."

"He did the best he could," said Mrs. Hoden. "Lord only knows what would
have become of us! He brought your cowboy, Russ, who's been very good
too."

"Mr. Steele, then is--is something more than a Ranger?" queried Miss
Sampson, with a little break in her voice.

"He's more than I can tell," replied Mrs. Hoden. "He buried Jim. He paid
our debts. He fetched us here. He bought food for us. He cooked for us
and fed us. He washed and dressed the baby. He sat with me the first two
nights after Jim's death, when I thought I'd die myself.

"He's so kind, so gentle, so patient. He has kept me up just by being
near. Sometimes I'd wake from a doze an', seeing him there, I'd know how
false were all these tales Jim heard about him and believed at first.
Why, he plays with the children just--just like any good man might. When
he has the baby up I just can't believe he's a bloody gunman, as they
say.

"He's good, but he isn't happy. He has such sad eyes. He looks far off
sometimes when the children climb round him. They love him. I think he
must have loved some woman. His life is sad. Nobody need tell me--he
sees the good in things. Once he said somebody had to be a Ranger. Well,
I say, thank God for a Ranger like him!"

After that there was a long silence in the little room, broken only by
the cooing of the baby. I did not dare to peep in at Miss Sampson then.

Somehow I expected Steele to arrive at that moment, and his step did not
surprise me. He came round the corner as he always turned any corner,
quick, alert, with his hand down. If I had been an enemy waiting there
with a gun I would have needed to hurry. Steele was instinctively and
habitually on the defense.

"Hello, son! How are Mrs. Hoden and the youngster to-day?" he asked.

"Hello yourself! Why, they're doing fine! I brought the girls down--"

Then in the semishadow of the room, across Mrs. Hoden's bed, Diane
Sampson and Steele faced each other.

That was a moment! Having seen her face then I would not have missed
sight of it for anything I could name; never so long as memory remained
with me would I forget. She did not speak. Sally, however, bowed and
spoke to the Ranger. Steele, after the first start, showed no unusual
feeling. He greeted both girls pleasantly.

"Russ, that was thoughtful of you," he said. "It was womankind needed
here. I could do so little--Mrs. Hoden, you look better to-day. I'm
glad. And here's baby, all clean and white. Baby, what a time I had
trying to puzzle out the way your clothes went on! Well, Mrs. Hoden,
didn't I tell you friends would come? So will the brighter side."

"Yes; I've more faith than I had," replied Mrs. Hoden. "Roger Sampson's
daughter has come to me. There for a while after Jim's death I thought
I'd sink. We have nothing. How could I ever take care of my little ones?
But I'm gaining courage."

"Mrs. Hoden, do not distress yourself any more," said Miss Sampson. "I
shall see you are well cared for. I promise you."

"Miss Sampson, that's fine!" exclaimed Steele, with a ring in his voice.
"It's what I'd have hoped--expected of you..."

It must have been sweet praise to her, for the whiteness of her face
burned in a beautiful blush.

"And it's good of you, too, Miss Langdon, to come," added Steele. "Let
me thank you both. I'm glad I have you girls as allies in part of my
lonely task here. More than glad, for the sake of this good woman and
the little ones. But both of you be careful. Don't stir without Russ.
There's risk. And now I'll be going. Good-by. Mrs. Hoden, I'll drop in
again to-night. Good-by!"

Steele backed to the door, and I slipped out before him.

"Mr. Steele--wait!" called Miss Sampson as he stepped out. He uttered a
little sound like a hiss or a gasp or an intake of breath, I did not
know what; and then the incomprehensible fellow bestowed a kick upon me
that I thought about broke my leg. But I understood and gamely endured
the pain. Then we were looking at Diane Sampson. She was white and
wonderful. She stepped out of the door, close to Steele. She did not see
me; she cared nothing for my presence. All the world would not have
mattered to her then.

"I have wronged you!" she said impulsively.

Looking on, I seemed to see or feel some slow, mighty force gathering in
Steele to meet this ordeal. Then he appeared as always--yet, to me, how
different!

"Miss Sampson, how can you say that?" he returned.

"I believed what my father and George Wright said about you--that
bloody, despicable record! Now I do _not_ believe. I see--I wronged
you."

"You make me very glad when you tell me this. It was hard to have you
think so ill of me. But, Miss Sampson, please don't speak of wronging
me. I am a Ranger, and much said of me is true. My duty is hard on
others--sometimes on those who are innocent, alas! But God knows that
duty is hard, too, on me."

"I did wrong you. In thought--in word. I ordered you from my home as if
you were indeed what they called you. But I was deceived. I see my
error. If you entered my home again I would think it an honor. I--"

"Please--please don't, Miss Sampson," interrupted poor Steele. I could
see the gray beneath his bronze and something that was like gold deep in
his eyes.

"But, sir, my conscience flays me," she went on. There was no other
sound like her voice. If I was all distraught with emotion, what must
Steele have been? "I make amends. Will you take my hand? Will you
forgive me?" She gave it royally, while the other was there pressing at
her breast.

Steele took the proffered hand and held it, and did not release it. What
else could he have done? But he could not speak. Then it seemed to dawn
upon Steele there was more behind this white, sweet, noble intensity of
her than just making amends for a fancied or real wrong. For myself, I
thought the man did not live on earth who could have resisted her then.
And there was resistance; I felt it; she must have felt it. It was poor
Steele's hard fate to fight the charm and eloquence and sweetness of
this woman when, for some reason unknown to him, and only guessed at by
me, she was burning with all the fire and passion of her soul.

"Mr. Steele, I honor you for your goodness to this unfortunate woman,"
she said, and now her speech came swiftly. "When she was all alone and
helpless you were her friend. It was the deed of a man. But Mrs. Hoden
isn't the only unfortunate woman in the world. I, too, am unfortunate.
Ah, how I may soon need a friend!

"Vaughn Steele, the man whom I need most to be my friend--want most to
lean upon--is the one whose duty is to stab me to the heart, to ruin
me. You! Will you be my friend? If you knew Diane Sampson you would know
she would never ask you to be false to your duty. Be true to us both!
I'm so alone--no one but Sally loves me. I'll need a friend soon--soon.

"Oh, I know--I know what you'll find out sooner or later. I know _now_!
I want to help you. Let us save life, if not honor. Must I stand
alone--all alone? Will you--will you be--"

Her voice failed. She was swaying toward Steele. I expected to see his
arms spread wide and enfold her in their embrace.

"Diane Sampson, I love you!" whispered Steele hoarsely, white now to his
lips. "I must be true to my duty. But if I can't be true to you, then by
God, I want no more of life!" He kissed her hand and rushed away.

She stood a moment as if blindly watching the place where he had
vanished, and then as a sister might have turned to a brother, she
reached for me.




Chapter 8

THE EAVESDROPPER


We silently rode home in the gathering dusk. Miss Sampson dismounted at
the porch, but Sally went on with me to the corrals. I felt heavy and
somber, as if a catastrophe was near at hand.

"Help me down," said Sally. Her voice was low and tremulous.

"Sally, did you hear what Miss Sampson said to Steele?" I asked.

"A little, here and there. I heard Steele tell her he loved her. Isn't
this a terrible mix?"

"It sure is. Did you hear--do you understand why she appealed to Steele,
asked him to be her friend?"

"Did she? No, I didn't hear that. I heard her say she had wronged him.
Then I tried not to hear any more. Tell me."

"No Sally; it's not my secret. I wish I could do something--help them
somehow. Yes, it's sure a terrible mix. I don't care so much about
myself."

"Nor me," Sally retorted.

"You! Oh, you're only a shallow spoiled child! You'd cease to love
anything the moment you won it. And I--well, I'm no good, you say. But
their love! My God, what a tragedy! You've no idea, Sally. They've
hardly spoken to each other, yet are ready to be overwhelmed."

Sally sat so still and silent that I thought I had angered or offended
her. But I did not care much, one way or another. Her coquettish fancy
for me and my own trouble had sunk into insignificance. I did not look
up at her, though she was so close I could feel her little, restless
foot touching me. The horses in the corrals were trooping up to the
bars. Dusk had about given place to night, although in the west a broad
flare of golden sky showed bright behind dark mountains.

"So I say you're no good?" asked Sally after a long silence. Then her
voice and the way her hand stole to my shoulder should have been warning
for me. But it was not, or I did not care.

"Yes, you said that, didn't you?" I replied absently.

"I can change my mind, can't I? Maybe you're only wild and reckless when
you drink. Mrs. Hoden said such nice things about you. They made me feel
so good."

I had no reply for that and still did not look up at her. I heard her
swing herself around in the saddle. "Lift me down," she said.

Perhaps at any other time I would have remarked that this request was
rather unusual, considering the fact that she was very light and sure of
action, extremely proud of it, and likely to be insulted by an offer of
assistance. But my spirit was dead. I reached for her hands, but they
eluded mine, slipped up my arms as she came sliding out of the saddle,
and then her face was very close to mine. "Russ!" she whispered. It was
torment, wistfulness, uncertainty, and yet tenderness all in one little
whisper. It caught me off guard or indifferent to consequences. So I
kissed her, without passion, with all regret and sadness. She uttered a
little cry that might have been mingled exultation and remorse for her
victory and her broken faith. Certainly the instant I kissed her she
remembered the latter. She trembled against me, and leaving unsaid
something she had meant to say, she slipped out of my arms and ran. She
assuredly was frightened, and I thought it just as well that she was.

Presently she disappeared in the darkness and then the swift little
clinks of her spurs ceased. I laughed somewhat ruefully and hoped she
would be satisfied. Then I put away the horses and went in for my
supper.

After supper I noisily bustled around my room, and soon stole out for my
usual evening's spying. The night was dark, without starlight, and the
stiff wind rustled the leaves and tore through the vines on the old
house. The fact that I had seen and heard so little during my constant
vigilance did not make me careless or the task monotonous. I had so much
to think about that sometimes I sat in one place for hours and never
knew where the time went.

This night, the very first thing, I heard Wright's well-known footsteps,
and I saw Sampson's door open, flashing a broad bar of light into the
darkness. Wright crossed the threshold, the door closed, and all was
dark again outside. Not a ray of light escaped from the window. This was
the first visit of Wright for a considerable stretch of time. Little
doubt there was that his talk with Sampson would be interesting to me.

I tiptoed to the door and listened, but I could hear only a murmur of
voices. Besides, that position was too risky. I went round the corner of
the house. Some time before I had made a discovery that I imagined would
be valuable to me. This side of the big adobe house was of much older
construction than the back and larger part. There was a narrow passage
about a foot wide between the old and new walls, and this ran from the
outside through to the patio. I had discovered the entrance by accident,
as it was concealed by vines and shrubbery. I crawled in there, upon an
opportune occasion, with the intention of boring a small hole through
the adobe bricks. But it was not necessary to do that, for the wall was
cracked; and in one place I could see into Sampson's room. This passage
now afforded me my opportunity, and I decided to avail myself of it in
spite of the very great danger. Crawling on my hands and knees very
stealthily, I got under the shrubbery to the entrance of the passage. In
the blackness a faint streak of light showed the location of the crack
in the wall.

I had to slip in sidewise. It was a tight squeeze, but I entered without
the slightest sound. If my position were to be betrayed it would not be
from noise. As I progressed the passage grew a very little wider in that
direction, and this fact gave rise to the thought that in case of a
necessary and hurried exit I would do best by working toward the patio.
It seemed a good deal of time was consumed in reaching my vantage-point.
When I did get there the crack was a foot over my head. If I had only
been tall like Steele! There was nothing to do but find toe-holes in the
crumbling walls, and by bracing knees on one side, back against the
other, hold myself up to the crack.

Once with my eye there I did not care what risk I ran. Sampson appeared
disturbed; he sat stroking his mustache; his brow was clouded. Wright's
face seemed darker, more sullen, yet lighted by some indomitable
resolve.

"We'll settle both deals to-night," Wright was saying. "That's what I
came for. That's why I've asked Snecker and Blome to be here."

"But suppose I don't choose to talk here?" protested Sampson
impatiently. "I never before made my house a place to--"

"We've waited long enough. This place's as good as any. You've lost your
nerve since that Ranger hit the town. First, now, will you give Diane to
me?"

"George, you talk like a spoiled boy. Give Diane to you! Why, she's a
woman and I'm finding out that she's got a mind of her own. I told you I
was willing for her to marry you. I tried to persuade her. But Diane
hasn't any use for you now. She liked you at first; but now she doesn't.
So what can I do?"

"You can make her marry me," replied Wright.

"Make that girl do what she doesn't want to? It couldn't be done, even
if I tried. And I don't believe I'll try. I haven't the highest opinion
of you as a prospective son-in-law, George. But if Diane loved you I
would consent. We'd all go away together before this damned miserable
business is out. Then she'd never know. And maybe you might be more like
you used to be before the West ruined you. But as matters stand you
fight your own game with her; and I'll tell you now, you'll lose."

"What'd you want to let her come out here for?" demanded Wright hotly.
"It was a dead mistake. I've lost my head over her. I'll have her or
die. Don't you think if she was my wife I'd soon pull myself together?
Since she came we've none of us been right. And the gang has put up a
holler. No, Sampson, we've got to settle things to-night."

"Well, we can settle what Diane's concerned in right now," replied
Sampson, rising. "Come on; we'll go ask her. See where you stand."

They went out, leaving the door open. I dropped down to rest myself and
to wait. I would have liked to hear Miss Sampson's answer to him. But I
could guess what it would be. Wright appeared to be all I had thought of
him, and I believed I was going to find out presently that he was worse.
Just then I wanted Steele as never before. Still, he was too big to worm
his way into this place.

The men seemed to be absent a good while, though that feeling might have
been occasioned by my interest and anxiety. Finally I heard heavy steps.
Wright came in alone. He was leaden-faced, humiliated. Then something
abject in him gave place to rage. He strode the room; he cursed.

Sampson returned, now appreciably calmer. I could not but decide that he
felt relief at the evident rejection of Wright's proposal. "Don't fume
about it, George," he said. "You see I can't help it. We're pretty wild
out here, but I can't rope my daughter and give her to you as I would an
unruly steer."

"Sampson, I can _make_ her marry me," declared Wright thickly.

"How?"

"You know the hold I got on you--the deal that made you boss of this
rustler gang?"

"It isn't likely I'd forget," replied Sampson grimly.

"I can go to Diane--tell her that--make her believe I'd tell it
broadcast, tell this Ranger Steele, unless she'd marry me!" Wright spoke
breathlessly, with haggard face and shadowed eyes. He had no shame. He
was simply in the grip of passion. Sampson gazed with dark, controlled
fury at his relative. In that look I saw a strong, unscrupulous man
fallen into evil ways, but still a man. It betrayed Wright to be the
wild and passionate weakling.

I seemed to see also how, during all the years of association, this
strong man had upheld the weak one. But that time had gone forever, both
in intent on Sampson's part and in possibility. Wright, like the great
majority of evil and unrestrained men on the border, had reached a point
where influence was futile. Reason had degenerated. He saw only himself.

"But, George, Diane's the one person on earth who must never know I'm a
rustler, a thief, a red-handed ruler of the worst gang on the border,"
replied Sampson impressively.

George bowed his head at that, as if the significance had just occurred
to him. But he was not long at a loss. "She's going to find it out
sooner or later. I tell you she knows now there's something wrong out
here. She's got eyes. And that meddling cowboy of hers is smarter than
you give him credit for. They're always together. You'll regret the day
Russ ever straddled a horse on this ranch. Mark what I say."

"Diane's changed, I know; but she hasn't any idea yet that her daddy's a
boss rustler. Diane's concerned about what she calls my duty as mayor.
Also I think she's not satisfied with my explanations in regard to
certain property."

Wright halted in his restless walk and leaned against the stone
mantelpiece. He squared himself as if this was his last stand. He looked
desperate, but on the moment showed an absence of his usual nervous
excitement. "Sampson, that may well be true," he said. "No doubt all
you say is true. But it doesn't help me. I want the girl. If I don't get
her I reckon we'll all go to hell!" He might have meant anything,
probably meant the worst. He certainly had something more in mind.

Sampson gave a slight start, barely perceptible like the twitch of an
awakening tiger. He sat there, head down, stroking his mustache. Almost
I saw his thought. I had long experience in reading men under stress of
such emotion. I had no means to vindicate my judgment, but my conviction
was that Sampson right then and there decided that the thing to do was
to kill Wright. For my part, I wondered that he had not come to such a
conclusion before. Not improbably the advent of his daughter had put
Sampson in conflict with himself.

Suddenly he threw off a somber cast of countenance and began to talk. He
talked swiftly, persuasively, yet I imagined he was talking to smooth
Wright's passion for the moment. Wright no more caught the fateful
significance of a line crossed, a limit reached, a decree decided, than
if he had not been present. He was obsessed with himself.

How, I wondered, had a man of his mind ever lived so long and gone so
far among the exacting conditions of Pecos County? The answer was
perhaps, that Sampson had guided him, upheld him, protected him. The
coming of Diane Sampson had been the entering wedge of dissension.

"You're too impatient," concluded Sampson. "You'll ruin any chance of
happiness if you rush Diane. She might be won. If you told her who I am
she'd hate you forever. She might marry you to save me, but she'd hate
you.

"That isn't the way. Wait. Play for time. Be different with her. Cut out
your drinking. She despises that. Let's plan to sell out here, stock,
ranch, property, and leave the country. Then you'd have a show with
her."

"I told you we've got to stick," growled Wright. "The gang won't stand
for our going. It can't be done unless you want to sacrifice
everything."

"You mean double-cross the men? Go without their knowing? Leave them
here to face whatever comes?"

"I mean just that."

"I'm bad enough, but not that bad," returned Sampson. "If I can't get
the gang to let me off I'll stay and face the music. All the same,
Wright, did it ever strike you that most of our deals the last few years
have been yours?"

"Yes. If I hadn't rung them in, there wouldn't have been any. You've had
cold feet, Owens says, especially since this Ranger Steele has been
here."

"Well, call it cold feet if you like. But I call it sense. We reached
our limit long ago. We began by rustling a few cattle at a time when
rustling was laughed at. But as our greed grew so did our boldness. Then
came the gang, the regular trips, and one thing and another till, before
we knew it--before _I_ knew it, we had shady deals, hold-ups, and
murders on our record. Then we had to go on. Too late to turn back!"

"I reckon we've all said that. None of the gang wants to quit. They all
think, and I think, we can't be touched. We may be blamed, but nothing
can be proved. We're too strong."

"There's where you're dead wrong," rejoined Sampson, emphatically. "I
imagined that once, not long ago. I was bull-headed. Who would ever
connect Roger Sampson with a rustler gang? I've changed my mind. I've
begun to think. I've reasoned out things. We're crooked and we can't
last. It's the nature of life, even in wild Pecos, for conditions to
grow better. The wise deal for us would be to divide equally and leave
the country, all of us."

"But you and I have all the stock--all the gain," protested Wright.

"I'll split mine."

"I won't--that settles that," added Wright instantly.

Sampson spread wide his hands as if it was useless to try to convince
this man. Talking had not increased his calmness, and he now showed more
than impatience. A dull glint gleamed deep in his eyes. "Your stock and
property will last a long time--do you lots of good when Steele--"

"Bah!" hoarsely croaked Wright. The Ranger's name was a match applied
to powder. "Haven't I told you he'd be dead soon same as Hoden is?"

"Yes, you mentioned the supposition," replied Sampson sarcastically. "I
inquired, too just how that very desired event was to be brought about."

"Blome's here to kill Steele."

"Bah!" retorted Sampson in turn. "Blome can't kill this Ranger. He can't
face him with a ghost of a show--he'll never get a chance at Steele's
back. The man don't live on this border who's quick and smart enough to
kill Steele."

"I'd like to know why?" demanded Wright sullenly.

"You ought to know. You've seen the Ranger pull a gun."

"Who told you?" queried Wright, his face working.

"Oh, I guessed it, if that'll do you."

"If Jack doesn't kill this damned Ranger I will," replied Wright,
pounding the table.

Sampson laughed contemptuously. "George, don't make so much noise. And
don't be a fool. You've been on the border for ten years. You've packed
a gun and you've used it. You've been with Blome and Snecker when they
killed their men. You've been present at many fights. But you never saw
a man like Steele. You haven't got sense enough to see him right if you
had a chance. Neither has Blome. The only way to get rid of Steele is
for the gang to draw on him, all at once. And even then he's going to
drop some of them."

"Sampson, you say that like a man who wouldn't care much if Steele did
drop some of them," declared Wright, and now he was sarcastic.

"To tell you the truth I wouldn't," returned the other bluntly. "I'm
pretty sick of this mess."

Wright cursed in amaze. His emotions were out of all proportion to his
intelligence. He was not at all quick-witted. I had never seen a vainer
or more arrogant man. "Sampson, I don't like your talk," he said.

"If you don't like the way I talk you know what you can do," replied
Sampson quickly. He stood up then, cool and quiet, with flash of eyes
and set of lips that told me he was dangerous.

"Well, after all, that's neither here nor there," went on Wright,
unconsciously cowed by the other. "The thing is, do I get the girl?"

"Not by any means, except her consent."

"You'll not make her marry me?"

"No. No," replied Sampson, his voice still cold, low-pitched.

"All right. Then I'll make her."

Evidently Sampson understood the man before him so well that he wasted
no more words. I knew what Wright never dreamed of, and that was that
Sampson had a gun somewhere within reach and meant to use it.

Then heavy footsteps sounded outside, tramping upon the porch. I might
have been mistaken, but I believed those footsteps saved Wright's life.

"There they are," said Wright, and he opened the door. Five masked men
entered. About two of them I could not recognize anything familiar. I
thought one had old Snecker's burly shoulders and another Bo Snecker's
stripling shape. I did recognize Blome in spite of his mask, because his
fair skin and hair, his garb and air of distinction made plain his
identity. They all wore coats, hiding any weapons. The big man with
burly shoulders shook hands with Sampson and the others stood back.

The atmosphere of that room had changed. Wright might have been a
nonentity for all he counted. Sampson was another man--a stranger to me.
If he had entertained a hope of freeing himself from his band, of
getting away to a safer country, he abandoned it at the very sight of
these men. There was power here and he was bound.

The big man spoke in low, hoarse whispers, and at this all the others
gathered round him, close to the table. There were evidently some signs
of membership not plain to me. Then all the heads were bent over the
table. Low voices spoke, queried, answered, argued. By straining my ears
I caught a word here and there. They were planning. I did not attempt to
get at the meaning of the few words and phrases I distinguished, but
held them in mind so to piece all together afterward. Before the
plotters finished conferring I had an involuntary flashed knowledge of
much and my whirling, excited mind made reception difficult.

When these rustlers finished whispering I was in a cold sweat. Steele
was to be killed as soon as possible by Blome, or by the gang going to
Steele's house at night. Morton had been seen with the Ranger. He was to
meet the same fate as Hoden, dealt by Bo Snecker, who evidently worked
in the dark like a ferret. Any other person known to be communing with
Steele, or interested in him, or suspected of either, was to be
silenced. Then the town was to suffer a short deadly spell of violence,
directed anywhere, for the purpose of intimidating those people who had
begun to be restless under the influence of the Ranger. After that, big
herds of stock were to be rustled off the ranches to the north and
driven to El Paso.

Then the big man, who evidently was the leader of the present
convention, got up to depart. He went as swiftly as he had come, and was
followed by the slender fellow. As far as it was possible for me to be
sure, I identified these two as Snecker and his son. The others,
however, remained. Blome removed his mask, which action was duplicated
by the two rustlers who had stayed with him. They were both young,
bronzed, hard of countenance, not unlike cowboys. Evidently this was now
a social call on Sampson. He set out cigars and liquors for his guests,
and a general conversation ensued, differing little from what might have
been indulged in by neighborly ranchers. There was not a word spoken
that would have caused suspicion.

Blome was genial, gay, and he talked the most. Wright alone seemed
uncommunicative and unsociable. He smoked fiercely and drank
continually. All at once he straightened up as if listening. "What's
that?" he called suddenly.

The talking and laughter ceased. My own strained ears were pervaded by a
slight rustling sound.

"Must be a rat," replied Sampson in relief. Strange how any sudden or
unknown thing weighed upon him.

The rustling became a rattle.

"Sounds like a rattlesnake to me," said Blome.

Sampson got up from the table and peered round the room. Just at that
instant I felt an almost inappreciable movement of the adobe wall which
supported me. I could scarcely credit my senses. But the rattle inside
Sampson's room was mingling with little dull thuds of falling dirt. The
adobe wall, merely dried mud was crumbling. I distinctly felt a tremor
pass through it. Then the blood gushed with sickening coldness back to
my heart and seemingly clogged it.

"What in the hell!" exclaimed Sampson.

"I smell dust," said Blome sharply.

That was the signal for me to drop down from my perch, yet despite my
care I made a noise.

"Did you hear a step?" queried Sampson.

Then a section of the wall fell inward with a crash. I began to squeeze
my body through the narrow passage toward the patio.

"Hear him!" yelled Wright. "This side."

"No, he's going that way," yelled someone else. The tramp of heavy boots
lent me the strength and speed of desperation. I was not shirking a
fight, but to be cornered like a trapped coyote was another matter. I
almost tore my clothes off in that passage. The dust nearly stifled me.

When I burst into the patio it was not one single instant too soon. But
one deep gash of breath revived me, and I was up, gun in hand, running
for the outlet into the court. Thumping footsteps turned me back. While
there was a chance to get away I did not want to meet odds in a fight. I
thought I heard some one running into the patio from the other end. I
stole along, and coming to a door, without any idea of where it might
lead, I softly pushed it open a little way and slipped in.




Chapter 9

IN FLAGRANTE DELICTO


A low cry greeted me. The room was light. I saw Sally Langdon sitting on
her bed in her dressing gown. Shaking my gun at her with a fierce
warning gesture to be silent, I turned to close the door. It was a heavy
door, without bolt or bar, and when I had shut it I felt safe only for
the moment. Then I gazed around the room. There was one window with
blind closely drawn. I listened and seemed to hear footsteps retreating,
dying away. Then I turned to Sally. She had slipped off the bed to her
knees and was holding out trembling hands as if both to supplicate mercy
and to ward me off. She was as white as the pillow on her bed. She was
terribly frightened. Again with warning hand commanding silence I
stepped softly forward, meaning to reassure her.

"Russ! Russ!" she whispered wildly, and I thought she was going to
faint. When I got close and looked into her eyes I understood the
strange dark expression in them. She was terrified because she believed
I meant to kill her, or do worse, probably worse. She had believed many
a hard story about me and had cared for me in spite of them. I
remembered, then, that she had broken her promise, she had tempted me,
led me to kiss her, made a fool out of me. I remembered, also how I had
threatened her. This intrusion of mine was the wild cowboy's vengeance.

I verily believed she thought I was drunk. I must have looked pretty
hard and fierce, bursting into her room with that big gun in hand. My
first action then was to lay the gun on her bureau.

"You poor kid!" I whispered, taking her hands and trying to raise her.
But she stayed on her knees and clung to me.

"Russ! It was vile of me," she whispered. "I know it. I deserve
anything--anything! But I am only a kid. Russ, I didn't break my
word--I didn't make you kiss me just for, vanity's sake. I swear I
didn't. I wanted you to. For I care, Russ, I can't help it. Please
forgive me. Please let me off this time. Don't--don't--"

"Will you shut up!" I interrupted, half beside myself. And I used force
in another way than speech. I shook her and sat her on the bed. "You
little fool, I didn't come in here to kill you or do some other awful
thing, as you think. For God's sake, Sally, what do you take me for?"

"Russ, you swore you'd do something terrible if I tempted you anymore,"
she faltered. The way she searched my face with doubtful, fearful eyes
hurt me.

"Listen," and with the word I seemed to be pervaded by peace. "I didn't
know this was your room. I came in here to get away--to save my life. I
was pursued. I was spying on Sampson and his men. They heard me, but did
not see me. They don't know who was listening. They're after me now. I'm
Special United States Deputy Marshal Sittell--Russell Archibald Sittell.
I'm a Ranger. I'm here as secret aid to Steele."

Sally's eyes changed from blank gulfs to dilating, shadowing, quickening
windows of thought. "Russ-ell Archi-bald Sittell," she echoed. "Ranger!
Secret aid to Steele!"

"Yes."

"Then you're no cowboy?"

"No."

"Only a make-believe one?"

"Yes."

"And the drinking, the gambling, the association with those low
men--that was all put on?"

"Part of the game, Sally. I'm not a drinking man. And I sure hate those
places I had to go in, and all that pertains to them."

"Oh, so _that's_ it! I knew there was something. How glad--how glad I
am!" Then Sally threw her arms around my neck, and without reserve or
restraint began to kiss me and love me. It must have been a moment of
sheer gladness to feel that I was not disreputable, a moment when
something deep and womanly in her was vindicated. Assuredly she was
entirely different from what she had ever been before.

There was a little space of time, a sweet confusion of senses, when I
could not but meet her half-way in tenderness. Quite as suddenly, then
she began to cry. I whispered in her ear, cautioning her to be careful,
that my life was at stake; and after that she cried silently, with one
of her arms round my neck, her head on my breast, and her hand clasping
mine. So I held her for what seemed a long time. Indistinct voices came
to me and footsteps seemingly a long way off. I heard the wind in the
rose-bush outside. Some one walked down the stony court. Then a shrill
neigh of a horse pierced the silence. A rider was mounting out there for
some reason. With my life at stake I grasped all the sweetness of that
situation. Sally stirred in my arms, raised a red, tear-stained yet
happy face, and tried to smile. "It isn't any time to cry," she
whispered. "But I had to. You can't understand what it made me feel to
learn you're no drunkard, no desperado, but a _man_--a man like that
Ranger!" Very sweetly and seriously she kissed me again. "Russ, if I
didn't honestly and truly love you before, I do now."

Then she stood up and faced me with the fire and intelligence of a
woman in her eyes. "Tell me now. You were spying on my uncle?"

Briefly I told her what had happened before I entered her room, not
omitting a terse word as to the character of the men I had watched.

"My God! So it's Uncle Roger! I knew something was very wrong here--with
him, with the place, the people. And right off I hated George Wright.
Russ, does Diane know?"

"She knows something. I haven't any idea how much."

"This explains her appeal to Steele. Oh, it'll kill her! You don't know
how proud, how good Diane is. Oh, it'll kill her!"

"Sally, she's no baby. She's got sand, that girl--"

The sound of soft steps somewhere near distracted my attention, reminded
me of my peril, and now, what counted more with me, made clear the
probability of being discovered in Sally's room. "I'll have to get out
of here," I whispered.

"Wait," she replied, detaining me. "Didn't you say they were hunting for
you?"

"They sure are," I returned grimly.

"Oh! Then you mustn't go. They might shoot you before you got away.
Stay. If we hear them you can hide under my bed. I'll turn out the
light. I'll meet them at the door. You can trust me. Stay, Russ. Wait
till all quiets down, if we have to wait till morning. Then you can slip
out."

"Sally, I oughtn't to stay. I don't want to--I won't," I replied
perplexed and stubborn.

"But you must. It's the only safe way. They won't come here."

"Suppose they should? It's an even chance Sampson'll search every room
and corner in this old house. If they found me here I couldn't start a
fight. You might be hurt. Then--the fact of my being here--" I did not
finish what I meant, but instead made a step toward the door.

Sally was on me like a little whirlwind, white of face and dark of eye,
with a resoluteness I could not have deemed her capable of. She was as
strong and supple as a panther, too. But she need not have been either
resolute or strong, for the clasp of her arms, the feel of her warm
breast as she pressed me back were enough to make me weak as water. My
knees buckled as I touched the chair, and I was glad to sit down. My
face was wet with perspiration and a kind of cold ripple shot over me. I
imagined I was losing my nerve then. Proof beyond doubt that Sally loved
me was so sweet, so overwhelming a thing, that I could not resist, even
to save her disgrace.

"Russ, the fact of your being here is the very thing to save you--if
they come," Sally whispered softly. "What do I care what they think?"
She put her arms round my neck. I gave up then and held her as if she
indeed were my only hope. A noise, a stealthy sound, a step, froze that
embrace into stone.

"Up yet, Sally?" came Sampson's clear voice, too strained, too eager to
be natural.

"No. I'm in bed, reading. Good night, Uncle," instantly replied Sally,
so calmly and naturally that I marveled at the difference between man
and woman. Perhaps that was the difference between love and hate.

"Are you alone?" went on Sampson's penetrating voice, colder now.

"Yes," replied Sally.

The door swung inward with a swift scrape and jar. Sampson half entered,
haggard, flaming-eyed. His leveled gun did not have to move an inch to
cover me. Behind him I saw Wright and indistinctly, another man.

"Well!" gasped Sampson. He showed amazement. "Hands up, Russ!"

I put up my hands quickly, but all the time I was calculating what chance
I had to leap for my gun or dash out the light. I was trapped. And fury,
like the hot teeth of a wolf, bit into me. That leveled gun, the menace
in Sampson's puzzled eyes, Wright's dark and hateful face, these loosened
the spirit of fight in me. If Sally had not been there I would have made
some desperate move.

Sampson barred Wright from entering, which action showed control as
well as distrust.

"You lied!" said Sampson to Sally. He was hard as flint, yet doubtful
and curious, too.

"Certainly I lied," snapped Sally in reply. She was cool, almost
flippant. I awakened to the knowledge that she was to be reckoned with
in this situation. Suddenly she stepped squarely between Sampson and me.

"Move aside," ordered Sampson sternly.

"I won't! What do I care for your old gun? You shan't shoot Russ or do
anything else to him. It's my fault he's here in my room. I coaxed him
to come."

"You little hussy!" exclaimed Sampson, and he lowered the gun.

If I ever before had occasion to glory in Sally I had it then. She
betrayed not the slightest fear. She looked as if she could fight like a
little tigress. She was white, composed, defiant.

"How long has Russ been in here?" demanded Sampson.

"All evening. I left Diane at eight o'clock. Russ came right after
that."

"But you'd undressed for bed!" ejaculated the angry and perplexed uncle.

"Yes." That simple answer was so noncommittal, so above subterfuge, so
innocent, and yet so confounding in its provocation of thought that
Sampson just stared his astonishment. But I started as if I had been
struck.

"See here Sampson--" I began, passionately.

Like a flash Sally whirled into my arms and one hand crossed my lips.
"It's my fault. I will take the blame," she cried, and now the agony of
fear in her voice quieted me. I realized I would be wise to be silent.
"Uncle," began Sally, turning her head, yet still clinging to me, "I've
tormented Russ into loving me. I've flirted with him--teased
him--tempted him. We love each other now. We're engaged. Please--please
don't--" She began to falter and I felt her weight sag a little against
me.

"Well, let go of him," said Sampson. "I won't hurt him. Sally, how long
has this affair been going on?"

"For weeks--I don't know how long."

"Does Diane know?"

"She knows we love each other, but not that we met--did this--" Light
swift steps, the rustle of silk interrupted Sampson, and made my heart
sink like lead.

"Is that you, George?" came Miss Sampson's deep voice, nervous, hurried.
"What's all this commotion? I hear--"

"Diane, go on back," ordered Sampson.

Just then Miss Sampson's beautiful agitated face appeared beside Wright.
He failed to prevent her from seeing all of us.

"Papa! Sally!" she exclaimed, in consternation. Then she swept into the
room. "What has happened?"

Sampson, like the devil he was, laughed when it was too late. He had
good impulses, but they never interfered with his sardonic humor. He
paced the little room, shrugging his shoulders, offering no explanation.
Sally appeared about ready to collapse and I could not have told Sally's
lie to Miss Sampson to save my life.

"Diane, your father and I broke in on a little Romeo and Juliet scene,"
said George Wright with a leer. Then Miss Sampson's dark gaze swept from
George to her father, then to Sally's attire and her shamed face, and
finally to me. What effect the magnificent wrath and outraged trust in
her eyes had upon me!

"Russ, do they dare insinuate you came to Sally's room?" For myself I
could keep silent, but for Sally I began to feel a hot clamoring
outburst swelling in my throat.

"Sally confessed it, Diane," replied Wright.

"Sally!" A shrinking, shuddering disbelief filled Miss Sampson's voice.

"Diane, I told you I loved him--didn't I?" replied Sally. She managed to
hold up her head with a ghost of her former defiant spirit.

"Miss Sampson, it's a--" I burst out.

Then Sally fainted. It was I who caught her. Miss Sampson hurried to her
side with a little cry of distress.

"Russ, your hand's called," said Sampson. "Of course you'll swear the
moon's green cheese. And I like you the better for it. But we know now,
and you can save your breath. If Sally hadn't stuck up so gamely for you
I'd have shot you. But at that I wasn't looking for you. Now clear out
of here." I picked up my gun from the bureau and dropped it in its
sheath. For the life of me I could not leave without another look at
Miss Sampson. The scorn in her eyes did not wholly hide the sadness. She
who needed friends was experiencing the bitterness of misplaced trust.
That came out in the scorn, but the sadness--I knew what hurt her most
was her sorrow.

I dropped my head and stalked out.




Chapter 10

A SLAP IN THE FACE


When I got out into the dark, where my hot face cooled in the wind, my
relief equaled my other feelings. Sampson had told me to clear out, and
although I did not take that as a dismissal I considered I would be wise
to leave the ranch at once. Daylight might disclose my footprints
between the walls, but even if it did not, my work there was finished.
So I went to my room and packed my few belongings.

The night was dark, windy, stormy, yet there was no rain. I hoped as
soon as I got clear of the ranch to lose something of the pain I felt.
But long after I had tramped out into the open there was a lump in my
throat and an ache in my breast. And all my thought centered round
Sally.

What a game and loyal little girl she had turned out to be! I was
absolutely at a loss concerning what the future held in store for us. I
seemed to have a vague but clinging hope that, after the trouble was
over, there might be--there _must_ be--something more between us.

Steele was not at our rendezvous among the rocks. The hour was too late.
Among the few dim lights flickering on the outskirts of town I picked
out the one of his little adobe house but I knew almost to a certainty
that he was not there. So I turned my way into the darkness, not with
any great hope of finding Steele out there, but with the intention of
seeking a covert for myself until morning.

There was no trail and the night was so black that I could see only the
lighter sandy patches of ground. I stumbled over the little clumps of
brush, fell into washes, and pricked myself on cactus. By and by
mesquites and rocks began to make progress still harder for me. I
wandered around, at last getting on higher ground and here in spite of
the darkness, felt some sense of familiarity with things. I was probably
near Steele's hiding place.

I went on till rocks and brush barred further progress, and then I
ventured to whistle. But no answer came. Whereupon I spread my blanket
in as sheltered a place as I could find and lay down. The coyotes were
on noisy duty, the wind moaned and rushed through the mesquites. But
despite these sounds and worry about Steele, and the never-absent
haunting thought of Sally, I went to sleep.

A little rain had fallen during the night, as I discovered upon waking;
still it was not enough to cause me any discomfort. The morning was
bright and beautiful, yet somehow I hated it. I had work to do that did
not go well with that golden wave of grass and brush on the windy open.

I climbed to the highest rock of that ridge and looked about. It was a
wild spot, some three miles from town. Presently I recognized landmarks
given to me by Steele and knew I was near his place. I whistled, then
halloed, but got no reply. Then by working back and forth across the
ridge I found what appeared to be a faint trail. This I followed, lost
and found again, and eventually, still higher up on another ridge, with
a commanding outlook, I found Steele's hiding place. He had not been
there for perhaps forty-eight hours. I wondered where he had slept.

Under a shelving rock I found a pack of food, carefully protected by a
heavy slab. There was also a canteen full of water. I lost no time
getting myself some breakfast, and then, hiding my own pack, I set off
at a rapid walk for town.

But I had scarcely gone a quarter of a mile, had, in fact, just reached
a level, when sight of two horsemen halted me and made me take to cover.
They appeared to be cowboys hunting for a horse or a steer. Under the
circumstances, however, I was suspicious, and I watched them closely,
and followed them a mile or so round the base of the ridges, until I had
thoroughly satisfied myself they were not tracking Steele. They were a
long time working out of sight, which further retarded my venturing
forth into the open.

Finally I did get started. Then about half-way to town more horsemen in
the flat caused me to lie low for a while, and make a wide detour to
avoid being seen.

Somewhat to my anxiety it was afternoon before I arrived in town. For my
life I could not have told why I knew something had happened since my
last visit, but I certainly felt it; and was proportionately curious and
anxious.

The first person I saw whom I recognized was Dick, and he handed me a
note from Sally. She seemed to take it for granted that I had been wise
to leave the ranch. Miss Sampson had softened somewhat when she learned
Sally and I were engaged, and she had forgiven my deceit. Sally asked me
to come that night after eight, down among the trees and shrubbery, to a
secluded spot we knew. It was a brief note and all to the point. But
there was something in it that affected me strangely. I had imagined the
engagement an invention for the moment. But after danger to me was past
Sally would not have carried on a pretense, not even to win back Miss
Sampson's respect. The fact was, Sally meant that engagement. If I did
the right thing now I would not lose her.

But what was the right thing?

I was sorely perplexed and deeply touched. Never had I a harder task
than that of the hour--to put her out of my mind. I went boldly to
Steele's house. He was not there. There was nothing by which I could
tell when he had been there. The lamp might have been turned out or
might have burned out. The oil was low. I saw a good many tracks round
in the sandy walks. I did not recognize Steele's.

As I hurried away I detected more than one of Steele's nearest neighbors
peering at me from windows and doors. Then I went to Mrs. Hoden's. She
was up and about and cheerful. The children were playing, manifestly
well cared for and content. Mrs. Hoden had not seen Steele since I had.
Miss Samson had sent her servant. There was a very decided change in the
atmosphere of Mrs. Hoden's home, and I saw that for her the worst was
past, and she was bravely, hopefully facing the future.

From there, I hurried to the main street of Linrock and to that section
where violence brooded, ready at any chance moment to lift its hydra
head. For that time of day the street seemed unusually quiet. Few
pedestrians were abroad and few loungers. There was a row of saddled
horses on each side of the street, the full extent of the block.

I went into the big barroom of the Hope So. I had never seen the place
so full, nor had it ever seemed so quiet. The whole long bar was lined
by shirt-sleeved men, with hats slouched back and vests flapping wide.
Those who were not drinking were talking low. Half a dozen tables held
as many groups of dusty, motley men, some silent, others speaking and
gesticulating, all earnest.

At first glance I did not see any one in whom I had especial interest.
The principal actors of my drama did not appear to be present. However,
there were rough characters more in evidence than at any other time I
had visited the saloon. Voices were too low for me to catch, but I
followed the direction of some of the significant gestures. Then I saw
that these half dozen tables were rather closely grouped and drawn back
from the center of the big room. Next my quick sight took in a smashed
table and chairs, some broken bottles on the floor, and then a dark
sinister splotch of blood.

I had no time to make inquiries, for my roving eye caught Frank Morton
in the doorway, and evidently he wanted to attract my attention. He
turned away and I followed. When I got outside, he was leaning against
the hitching-rail. One look at this big rancher was enough for me to see
that he had been told my part in Steele's game, and that he himself had
roused to the Texas fighting temper. He had a clouded brow. He looked
somber and thick. He seemed slow, heavy, guarded.

"Howdy, Russ," he said. "We've been wantin' you."

"There's ten of us in town, all scattered round, ready. It's goin' to
start to-day."

"Where's Steele?" was my first query.

"Saw him less'n hour ago. He's somewhere close. He may show up any
time."

"Is he all right?"

"Wai, he was pretty fit a little while back," replied Morton
significantly.

"What's come off? Tell me all."

"Wai, the ball opened last night, I reckon. Jack Blome came swaggerin'
in here askin' for Steele. We all knew what he was in town for. But last
night he came out with it. Every man in the saloons, every man on the
streets heard Blome's loud an' longin' call for the Ranger. Blome's pals
took it up and they all enjoyed themselves some."

"Drinking hard?" I queried.

"Nope--they didn't hit it up very hard. But they laid foundations." Of
course, Steele was not to be seen last night. This morning Blome and his
gang were out pretty early. But they traveled alone. Blome just strolled
up and down by himself. I watched him walk up this street on one side
and then down the other, just a matter of thirty-one times. I counted
them. For all I could see maybe Blome did not take a drink. But his
gang, especially Bo Snecker, sure looked on the red liquor.

"By eleven o'clock everybody in town knew what was coming off. There was
no work or business, except in the saloons. Zimmer and I were together,
and the rest of our crowd in pairs at different places. I reckon it was
about noon when Blome got tired parading up and down. He went in the
Hope So, and the crowd followed. Zimmer stayed outside so to give
Steele a hunch in case he came along. I went in to see the show.

"Wai, it was some curious to me, and I've lived all my life in Texas.
But I never before saw a gunman on the job, so to say. Blome's a
handsome fellow, an' he seemed different from what I expected. Sure, I
thought he'd yell an' prance round like a drunken fool. But he was cool
an' quiet enough. The bio win' an' drinkin' was done by his pals. But
after a little while it got to me that Blome gloried in this situation.
I've seen a man dead-set to kill another, all dark, sullen, restless.
But Blome wasn't that way. He didn't seem at all like a bloody devil. He
was vain, cocksure. He was revelin' in the effect he made. I had him
figured all right.

"Blome sat on the edge of a table an' he faced the door. Of course,
there was a pard outside, ready to pop in an' tell him if Steele was
comin'. But Steele didn't come in that way. He wasn't on the street just
before that time, because Zimmer told me afterward. Steele must have
been in the Hope So somewhere. Any way, just like he dropped from the
clouds he came through the door near the bar. Blome didn't see him come.
But most of the gang did, an' I want to tell you that big room went
pretty quiet.

"'Hello Blome, I hear you're lookin' for me,' called out Steele.

"I don't know if he spoke ordinary or not, but his voice drew me up same
as it did the rest, an' damn me! Blome seemed to turn to stone. He
didn't start or jump. He turned gray. An' I could see that he was tryin'
to think in a moment when thinkin' was hard. Then Blome turned his head.
Sure he expected to look into a six-shooter. But Steele was standin'
back there in his shirt sleeves, his hands on his hips, and he looked
more man than any one I ever saw. It's easy to remember the look of him,
but how he made me feel, that isn't easy.

"Blome was at a disadvantage. He was half sittin' on a table, an' Steele
was behind an' to the left of him. For Blome to make a move then would
have been a fool trick. He saw that. So did everybody. The crowd slid
back without noise, but Bo Snecker an' a rustler named March stuck near
Blome. I figured this Bo Snecker as dangerous as Blome, an' results
proved I was right.

"Steele didn't choose to keep his advantage, so far as position in
regard to Blome went. He just walked round in front of the rustler. But
this put all the crowd in front of Steele, an' perhaps he had an eye for
that.

"'I hear you've been looking for me,' repeated the Ranger.

"Blome never moved a muscle but he seemed to come to life. It struck me
that Steele's presence had made an impression on Blome which was new to
the rustler.

"'Yes, I have,' replied Blome.

"'Well, here I am. What do you want?'

"When everybody knew what Blome wanted and had intended, this question
of Steele's seemed strange on one hand. An' yet on the other, now that
the Ranger stood there, it struck me as natural enough.

"'If you heard I was lookin' for you, you sure heard what for,' replied
Blome.

"'Blome, my experience with such men as you is that you all brag one
thing behind my back an' you mean different when I show up. I've called
you now. What do you mean?'

"'I reckon you know what Jack Blome means.'

"'Jack Blome! That name means nothin' to me. Blome, you've been braggin'
around that you'd meet me--kill me! You thought you meant it, didn't
you?'

"'Yes--I did mean it.'

"'All right. Go ahead!'

"The barroom became perfectly still, except for the slow breaths I
heard. There wasn't any movement anywhere. That queer gray came to
Blome's face again. He might again have been stone. I thought, an' I'll
gamble every one else watchin' thought, Blome would draw an' get killed
in the act. But he never moved. Steele had cowed him. If Blome had been
heated by drink, or mad, or anythin' but what he was just then, maybe he
might have throwed a gun. But he didn't. I've heard of really brave men
gettin' panicked like that, an' after seein' Steele I didn't wonder at
Blome.

"'You see, Blome, you don't want to meet me, for all your talk,' went on
the Ranger. 'You thought you did, but that was before you faced the man
you intended to kill. Blome, you're one of these dandy, cock-of-the-walk
four-flushers. I'll tell you how I know. Because I've met the real
gun-fighters, an' there never was one of them yet who bragged or talked.
Now don't you go round blowin' any more.'

"Then Steele deliberately stepped forward an' slapped Blome on one side
of his face an' again on the other.

"'Keep out of my way after this or I'm liable to spoil some of your
dandy looks.'

"Blome got up an' walked straight out of the place. I had my eyes on
him, kept me from seein' Steele. But on hearin' somethin', I don't know
what, I turned back an' there Steele had got a long arm on Bo Snecker,
who was tryin' to throw a gun.

"But he wasn't quick enough. The gun banged in the air an' then it went
spinnin' away, while Snecker dropped in a heap on the floor. The table
was overturned, an' March, the other rustler, who was on that side, got
up, pullin' his gun. But somebody in the crowd killed him before he
could get goin'. I didn't see who fired that shot, an' neither did
anybody else. But the crowd broke an' run. Steele dragged Bo Snecker
down to jail an' locked him up."

Morton concluded his narrative, and then evidently somewhat dry of
tongue, he produced knife and tobacco and cut himself a huge quid.
"That's all, so far, to-day, Russ, but I reckon you'll agree with me on
the main issue--Steele's game's opened."

I had felt the rush of excitement, the old exultation at the prospect of
danger, but this time there was something lacking in them. The wildness
of the boy that had persisted in me was gone.

"Yes, Steele has opened it and I'm ready to boost the game along. Wait
till I see him! But Morton, you say someone you don't know played a hand
in here and killed March."

"I sure do. It wasn't any of our men. Zimmer was outside. The others
were at different places."

"The fact is, then, Steele has more friends than we know, perhaps more
than he knows himself."

"Right. An' it's got the gang in the air. There'll be hell to-night."

"Steele hardly expects to keep Snecker in jail, does he?"

"I can't say. Probably not. I wish Steele had put both Blome and Snecker
out of the way. We'd have less to fight."

"Maybe. I'm for the elimination method myself. But Steele doesn't follow
out the gun method. He will use one only when he's driven. It's hard to
make him draw. You know, after all, these desperate men aren't afraid of
guns or fights. Yet they are afraid of Steele. Perhaps it's his nerve,
the way he faces them, the things he says, the fact that he has
mysterious allies."

"Russ, we're all with him, an' I'll gamble that the honest citizens of
Linrock will flock to him in another day. I can see signs of that. There
were twenty or more men on Hoden's list, but Steele didn't want so
many."

"We don't need any more. Morton, can you give me any idea where Steele
is?"

"Not the slightest."

"All right. I'll hunt for him. If you see him tell him to hole up, and
then you come after me. Tell him I've got our men spotted."

"Russ, if you Ranger fellows ain't wonders!" exclaimed Morton, with
shining eyes.

Steele did not show himself in town again that day. Here his cunning was
manifest. By four o'clock that afternoon Blome was drunk and he and his
rustlers went roaring up and down the street. There was some shooting,
but I did not see or hear that any one got hurt. The lawless element,
both native to Linrock and the visitors, followed in Blome's tracks from
saloon to saloon. How often had I seen this sort of procession, though
not on so large a scale, in many towns of wild Texas!

The two great and dangerous things in Linrock at the hour were whisky
and guns. Under such conditions the rustlers were capable of any mad act
of folly.

Morton and his men sent word flying around town that a fight was
imminent and all citizens should be prepared to defend their homes
against possible violence. But despite his warning I saw many
respectable citizens abroad whose quiet, unobtrusive manner and watchful
eyes and hard faces told me that when trouble began they wanted to be
there. Verily Ranger Steele had built his house of service upon a rock.
It did not seem too much to say that the next few days, perhaps hours,
would see a great change in the character and a proportionate decrease
in number of the inhabitants of this corner of Pecos County.

Morton and I were in the crowd that watched Blome, Snecker, and a dozen
other rustlers march down to Steele's jail. They had crowbars and they
had cans of giant powder, which they had appropriated from a hardware
store. If Steele had a jailer he was not in evidence. The door was
wrenched off and Bo Snecker, evidently not wholly recovered, brought
forth to his cheering comrades. Then some of the rustlers began to urge
back the pressing circle, and the word given out acted as a spur to
haste. The jail was to be blown up.

The crowd split and some men ran one way, some another. Morton and I
were among those who hurried over the vacant ground to a little ridge
that marked the edge of the open country. From this vantage point we
heard several rustlers yell in warning, then they fled for their lives.

It developed that they might have spared themselves such headlong
flight. The explosion appeared to be long in coming. At length we saw
the lifting of the roof in a cloud of red dust, and then heard an
exceedingly heavy but low detonation. When the pall of dust drifted away
all that was left of Steele's jail was a part of the stone walls. The
building that stood nearest, being constructed of adobe, had been badly
damaged.

However, this wreck of the jail did not seem to satisfy Blome and his
followers, for amid wild yells and huzzahs they set to work with
crowbars and soon laid low every stone. Then with young Snecker in the
fore they set off up town; and if this was not a gang in fit mood for
any evil or any ridiculous celebration I greatly missed my guess.

It was a remarkable fact, however, and one that convinced me of deviltry
afoot, that the crowd broke up, dispersed, and actually disappeared off
the streets of Linrock. The impression given was that they were
satisfied. But this impression did not remain with me. Morton was
scarcely deceived either. I told him that I would almost certainly see
Steele early in the evening and that we would be out of harm's way. He
told me that we could trust him and his men to keep sharp watch on the
night doings of Blome's gang. Then we parted.

It was almost dark. By the time I had gotten something to eat and drink
at the Hope So, the hour for my meeting with Sally was about due. On the
way out I did not pass a lighted house until I got to the end of the
street; and then strange to say, that one was Steele's. I walked down
past the place, and though I was positive he would not be there I
whistled low. I halted and waited. He had two lights lit, one in the
kitchen, and one in the big room. The blinds were drawn. I saw a long,
dark shadow cross one window and then, a little later, cross the other.
This would have deceived me had I not remembered Steele's device for
casting the shadow. He had expected to have his house attacked at night,
presumably while he was at home; but he had felt that it was not
necessary for him to stay there to make sure. Lawless men of this class
were sometimes exceedingly simple and gullible.

Then I bent my steps across the open, avoiding road and path, to the
foot of the hill upon which Sampson's house stood. It was dark enough
under the trees. I could hardly find my way to the secluded nook and
bench where I had been directed to come. I wondered if Sally would be
able to find it. Trust that girl! She might have a few qualms and come
shaking a little, but she would be there on the minute.

I had hardly seated myself to wait when my keen ears detected something,
then slight rustlings, then soft steps, and a dark form emerged from the
blackness into the little starlit glade. Sally came swiftly towards me
and right into my arms. That was sure a sweet moment. Through the
excitement and dark boding thoughts of the day, I had forgotten that she
would do just this thing. And now I anticipated tears, clingings, fears.
But I was agreeably surprised.

"Russ, are you all right?" she whispered.

"Just at this moment I am," I replied.

Sally gave me another little hug, and then, disengaging herself from my
arms, she sat down beside me.

"I can only stay a minute. Oh, it's safe enough. But I told Diane I was
to meet you and she's waiting to hear if Steele is--is--"

"Steele's safe so far," I interrupted.

"There were men coming and going all day. Uncle Roger never appeared at
meals. He didn't eat, Diane said. George tramped up and down, smoking,
biting his nails, listening for these messengers. When they'd leave he'd
go in for another drink. We heard him roar some one had been shot and we
feared it might be Steele."

"No," I replied, steadily.

"Did Steele shoot anybody?"

"No. A rustler named March tried to draw on Steele, and someone in the
crowd killed March."

"Someone? Russ, was it you?"

"It sure wasn't. I didn't happen to be there."

"Ah! Then Steele has other men like you around him. I might have guessed
that."

"Sally, Steele makes men his friends. It's because he's on the side of
justice."

"Diane will be glad to hear that. She doesn't think only of Steele's
life. I believe she has a secret pride in his work. And I've an idea
what she fears most is some kind of a clash between Steele and her
father."

"I shouldn't wonder. Sally, what does Diane know about her father?"

"Oh, she's in the dark. She got hold of papers that made her ask him
questions. And his answers made her suspicious. She realizes he's not
what he has pretended to be all these years. But she never dreams her
father is a rustler chief. When she finds that out--" Sally broke off
and I finished the sentence in thought.

"Listen, Sally," I said, suddenly. "I've an idea that Steele's house
will be attacked by the gang to-night, and destroyed, same as the jail
was this afternoon. These rustlers are crazy. They'll expect to kill him
while he's there. But he won't be there. If you and Diane hear shooting
and yelling to-night don't be frightened. Steele and I will be safe."

"Oh, I hope so. Russ, I must hurry back. But, first, can't you arrange a
meeting between Diane and Steele? It's her wish. She begged me to. She
must see him."

"I'll try," I promised, knowing that promise would be hard to keep.

"We could ride out from the ranch somewhere. You remember we used to
rest on the high ridge where there was a shady place--such a beautiful
outlook? It was there I--I--"

"My dear, you needn't bring up painful memories. I remember where."

Sally laughed softly. She could laugh in the face of the gloomiest
prospects. "Well, to-morrow morning, or the next, or any morning soon,
you tie your red scarf on the dead branch of that high mesquite. I'll
look every morning with the glass. If I see the scarf, Diane and I will
ride out."

"That's fine. Sally, you have ideas in your pretty little head. And once
I thought it held nothing but--" She put a hand on my mouth. "I must go
now," she said and rose. She stood close to me and put her arms around
my neck. "One thing more, Russ. It--it was dif--difficult telling Diane
we--we were engaged. I lied to Uncle. But what else could I have told
Diane? I--I--Oh--was it--" She faltered.

"Sally, you lied to Sampson to save me. But you must have accepted me
before you could have told Diane the truth."

"Oh, Russ, I had--in my heart! But it has been some time since you asked
me--and--and--"

"You imagined my offer might have been withdrawn. Well, it stands."

She slipped closer to me then, with that soft sinuousness of a woman,
and I believed she might have kissed me had I not held back, toying with
my happiness.

"Sally, do you love me?"

"Ever so much. Since the very first."

"I'm a marshal, a Ranger like Steele, a hunter of criminals. It's a hard
life. There's spilling of blood. And any time I--I might--All the same,
Sally--will you be my wife?"

"Oh, Russ! Yes. But let me tell you when your duty's done here that I
will have a word to say about your future. It'll be news to you to learn
I'm an orphan. And I'm not a poor one. I own a plantation in Louisiana.
I'll make a planter out of you. There!"

"Sally! You're rich?" I exclaimed.

"I'm afraid I am. But nobody can ever say you married me for my money."

"Well, no, not if you tell of my abject courtship when I thought you a
poor relation on a visit. My God! Sally, if I only could see this Ranger
job through safely and to success!"

"You will," she said softly.

Then I took a ring from my little finger and slipped it on hers. "That
was my sister's. She's dead now. No other girl ever wore it. Let it be
your engagement ring. Sally, I pray I may somehow get through this awful
Ranger deal to make you happy, to become worthy of you!"

"Russ, I fear only one thing," she whispered.

"And what's that?"

"There will be fighting. And you--oh, I saw into your eyes the other
night when you stood with your hands up. You would kill anybody, Russ.
It's awful! But don't think me a baby. I can conceive what your work is,
what a man you must be. I can love you and stick to you, too. But if you
killed a blood relative of mine I would have to give you up. I'm a
Southerner, Russ, and blood is thick. I scorn my uncle and I hate my
cousin George. And I love you. But don't you kill one of my family,
I--Oh, I beg of you go as far as you dare to avoid that!"

I could find no voice to answer her, and for a long moment we were
locked in an embrace, breast to breast and lips to lips, an embrace of
sweet pain.

Then she broke away, called a low, hurried good-by, and stole like a
shadow into the darkness.

An hour later I lay in the open starlight among the stones and brush,
out where Steele and I always met. He lay there with me, but while I
looked up at the stars he had his face covered with his hands. For I had
given him my proofs of the guilt of Diane Sampson's father.

Steele had made one comment: "I wish to God I'd sent for some fool who'd
have bungled the job!"

This was a compliment to me, but it showed what a sad pass Steele had
come to. My regret was that I had no sympathy to offer him. I failed him
there. I had trouble of my own. The feel of Sally's clinging arms around
my neck, the warm, sweet touch of her lips remained on mine. What Steele
was enduring I did not know, but I felt that it was agony.

Meanwhile time passed. The blue, velvety sky darkened as the stars grew
brighter. The wind grew stronger and colder. I heard sand blowing
against the stones like the rustle of silk. Otherwise it was a
singularly quiet night. I wondered where the coyotes were and longed for
their chorus. By and by a prairie wolf sent in his lonely lament from
the distant ridges. That mourn was worse than the silence. It made the
cold shudders creep up and down my back. It was just the cry that seemed
to be the one to express my own trouble. No one hearing that long-drawn,
quivering wail could ever disassociate it from tragedy. By and by it
ceased, and then I wished it would come again. Steele lay like the stone
beside him. Was he ever going to speak? Among the vagaries of my mood
was a petulant desire to have him sympathize with me.

I had just looked at my watch, making out in the starlight that the hour
was eleven, when the report of a gun broke the silence.

I jumped up to peer over the stone. Steele lumbered up beside me, and I
heard him draw his breath hard.




Chapter 11

THE FIGHT IN THE HOPE SO


I could plainly see the lights of his adobe house, but of course,
nothing else was visible. There were no other lighted houses near.
Several flashes gleamed, faded swiftly, to be followed by reports, and
then the unmistakable jingle of glass.

"I guess the fools have opened up, Steele," I said. His response was an
angry grunt. It was just as well, I concluded, that things had begun to
stir. Steele needed to be roused.

Suddenly a single sharp yell pealed out. Following it came a huge flare
of light, a sheet of flame in which a great cloud of smoke or dust shot
up. Then, with accompanying darkness, burst a low, deep, thunderous
boom. The lights of the house went out, then came a crash. Points of
light flashed in a half-circle and the reports of guns blended with the
yells of furious men, and all these were swallowed up in the roar of a
mob.

Another and a heavier explosion momentarily lightened the darkness and
then rent the air. It was succeeded by a continuous volley and a steady
sound that, though composed of yells, screams, cheers, was not anything
but a hideous roar of hate. It kept up long after there could have been
any possibility of life under the ruins of that house. It was more than
hate of Steele. All that was wild and lawless and violent hurled this
deed at the Ranger Service.

Such events had happened before in Texas and other states; but,
strangely, they never happened more than once in one locality. They were
expressions, perhaps, that could never come but once.

I watched Steele through all that hideous din, that manifestation of
insane rage at his life and joy at his death, and when silence once more
reigned and he turned his white face to mine, I had a sensation of
dread. And dread was something particularly foreign to my nature.

"So Blome and the Sneckers think they've done for me," he muttered.

"Pleasant surprise for them to-morrow, eh, old man?" I queried.

"To-morrow? Look, Russ, what's left of my old 'dobe house is on fire. The
ruins can't be searched soon. And I was particular to fix things so it'd
look like I was home. I just wanted to give them a chance. It's
incomprehensible how easy men like them can be duped. Whisky-soaked!
Yes, they'll be surprised!"

He lingered a while, watching the smoldering fire and the dim columns of
smoke curling up against the dark blue. "Russ, do you suppose they heard
up at the ranch and think I'm--"

"They heard, of course," I replied. "But the girls know you're safe with
me."

"Safe? I--I almost wish to God I was there under that heap of ruins,
where the rustlers think they've left me."

"Well, Steele, old fellow, come on. We need some sleep." With Steele in
the lead, we stalked away into the open.

Two days later, about the middle of the forenoon, I sat upon a great
flat rock in the shade of a bushy mesquite, and, besides enjoying the
vast, clear sweep of gold and gray plain below, I was otherwise
pleasantly engaged. Sally sat as close to me as she could get, holding
to my arm as if she never intended to let go. On the other side Miss
Sampson leaned against me, and she was white and breathless, partly from
the quick ride out from the ranch, partly from agitation. She had grown
thinner, and there were dark shadows under her eyes, yet she seemed only
more beautiful. The red scarf with which I had signaled the girls waved
from a branch of the mesquite. At the foot of the ridge their horses
were halted in a shady spot.

"Take off your sombrero," I said to Sally. "You look hot. Besides,
you're prettier with your hair flying." As she made no move, I took it
off for her. Then I made bold to perform the same office for Miss
Sampson. She faintly smiled her thanks. Assuredly she had forgotten all
her resentment. There were little beads of perspiration upon her white
brow. What a beautiful mass of black-brown hair, with strands of red or
gold! Pretty soon she would be bending that exquisite head and face over
poor Steele, and I, who had schemed this meeting, did not care what he
might do to me.

Pretty soon, also, there was likely to be an interview that would shake
us all to our depths, and naturally, I was somber at heart. But though
my outward mood of good humor may have been pretense, it certainly was a
pleasure to be with the girls again way out in the open. Both girls were
quiet, and this made my task harder, and perhaps in my anxiety to ward
off questions and appear happy for their own sakes I made an ass of
myself with my silly talk and familiarity. Had ever a Ranger such a job
as mine?

"Diane, did Sally show you her engagement ring?" I went on, bound to
talk.

Miss Sampson either did not notice my use of her first name or she did
not object. She seemed so friendly, so helplessly wistful. "Yes. It's
very pretty. An antique. I've seen a few of them," she replied.

"I hope you'll let Sally marry me soon."

"_Let_ her? Sally Langdon? You haven't become acquainted with your
fiancee. But when--"

"Oh, next week, just as soon--"

"Russ!" cried Sally, blushing furiously.

"What's the matter?" I queried innocently.

"You're a little previous."

"Well, Sally, I don't presume to split hairs over dates. But, you see,
you've become extremely more desirable--in the light of certain
revelations. Diane, wasn't Sally the deceitful thing? An heiress all the
time! And I'm to be a planter and smoke fine cigars and drink mint
juleps! No, there won't be any juleps."

"Russ, you're talking nonsense," reproved Sally. "Surely it's no time to
be funny."

"All right," I replied with resignation. It was no task to discard that
hollow mask of humor. A silence ensued, and I waited for it to be
broken.

"Is Steele badly hurt?" asked Miss Sampson presently.

"No. Not what he or I'd call hurt at all. He's got a scalp wound, where
a bullet bounced off his skull. It's only a scratch. Then he's got
another in the shoulder; but it's not bad, either."

"Where is he now?"

"Look across on the other ridge. See the big white stone? There, down
under the trees, is our camp. He's there."

"When may--I see him?" There was a catch in her low voice.

"He's asleep now. After what happened yesterday he was exhausted, and
the pain in his head kept him awake till late. Let him sleep a while
yet. Then you can see him."

"Did he know we were coming?"

"He hadn't the slightest idea. He'll be overjoyed to see you. He can't
help that. But he'll about fall upon me with harmful intent."

"Why?"

"Well, I know he's afraid to see you."

"Why?"

"Because it only makes his duty harder."

"Ah!" she breathed.

It seemed to me that my intelligence confirmed a hope of hers and gave
her relief. I felt something terrible in the balance for Steele. And I
was glad to be able to throw them together. The catastrophe must fall,
and now the sooner it fell the better. But I experienced a tightening of
my lips and a tugging at my heart-strings.

"Sally, what do you and Diane know about the goings-on in town
yesterday?" I asked.

"Not much. George was like an insane man. I was afraid to go near him.
Uncle wore a sardonic smile. I heard him curse George--oh, terribly! I
believe he hates George. Same as day before yesterday, there were men
riding in and out. But Diane and I heard only a little, and conflicting
statements at that. We knew there was fighting. Dick and the servants,
the cowboys, all brought rumors. Steele was killed at least ten times
and came to life just as many.

"I can't recall, don't want to recall, all we heard. But this morning
when I saw the red scarf flying in the wind--well, Russ, I was so glad I
could not see through the glass any more. We knew then Steele was all
right or you wouldn't have put up the signal."

"Reckon few people in Linrock realize just what _did_ come off," I
replied with a grim chuckle.

"Russ, I want you to tell me," said Miss Sampson earnestly.

"What?" I queried sharply.

"About yesterday--what Steele did--what happened."

"Miss Sampson, I could tell you in a few short statements of fact or I
could take two hours in the telling. Which do you prefer?"

"I prefer the long telling. I want to know all about him."

"But why, Miss Sampson? Consider. This is hardly a story for a
sensitive woman's ears."

"I am no coward," she replied, turning eyes to me that flashed like dark
fire.

"But why?" I persisted. I wanted a good reason for calling up all the
details of the most strenuous and terrible day in my border experience.
She was silent a moment. I saw her gaze turn to the spot where Steele
lay asleep, and it was a pity he could not see her eyes then. "Frankly,
I don't want to tell you," I added, and I surely would have been glad to
get out of the job.

"I want to hear--because I glory in his work," she replied deliberately.

I gathered as much from the expression of her face as from the deep ring
of her voice, the clear content of her statement. She loved the Ranger,
but that was not all of her reason.

"His work?" I echoed. "Do you want him to succeed in it?"

"With all my heart," she said, with a white glow on her face.

"My God!" I ejaculated. I just could not help it. I felt Sally's small
fingers clutching my arm like sharp pincers. I bit my lips to keep them
shut. What if Steele had heard her say that? Poor, noble,
justice-loving, blind girl! She knew even less than I hoped. I forced my
thought to the question immediately at hand. She gloried in the Ranger's
work. She wanted with all her heart to see him succeed in it. She had a
woman's pride in his manliness. Perhaps, with a woman's complex,
incomprehensible motive, she wanted Steele to be shown to her in all the
power that made him hated and feared by lawless men. She had finally
accepted the wild life of this border as something terrible and
inevitable, but passing. Steele was one of the strange and great and
misunderstood men who were making that wild life pass.

For the first time I realized that Miss Sampson, through sharpened eyes
of love, saw Steele as he really was--a wonderful and necessary
violence. Her intelligence and sympathy had enabled her to see through
defamation and the false records following a Ranger; she had had no
choice but to love him; and then a woman's glory in a work that freed
men, saved women, and made children happy effaced forever the horror of
a few dark deeds of blood.

"Miss Sampson, I must tell you first," I began, and hesitated--"that I'm
not a cowboy. My wild stunts, my drinking and gaming--these were all
pretense."

"Indeed! I am very glad to hear it. And was Sally in your confidence?"

"Only lately. I am a United States deputy marshal in the service of
Steele."

She gave a slight start, but did not raise her head.

"I have deceived you. But, all the same, I've been your friend. I ask
you to respect my secret a little while. I'm telling you because
otherwise my relation to Steele yesterday would not be plain. Now, if
you and Sally will use this blanket, make yourselves more comfortable
seats, I'll begin my story."

Miss Sampson allowed me to arrange a place for her where she could rest
at ease, but Sally returned to my side and stayed there. She was an
enigma to-day--pale, brooding, silent--and she never looked at me except
when my face was half averted.

"Well," I began, "night before last Steele and I lay hidden among the
rocks near the edge of town, and we listened to and watched the
destruction of Steele's house. It had served his purpose to leave lights
burning, to have shadows blow across the window-blinds, and to have a
dummy in his bed. Also, he arranged guns to go off inside the house at
the least jar. Steele wanted evidence against his enemies. It was not
the pleasantest kind of thing to wait there listening to that drunken
mob. There must have been a hundred men. The disturbance and the intent
worked strangely upon Steele. It made him different. In the dark I
couldn't tell how he looked, but I felt a mood coming in him that fairly
made me dread the next day.

"About midnight we started for our camp here. Steele got in some sleep,
but I couldn't. I was cold and hot by turns, eager and backward, furious
and thoughtful. You see, the deal was such a complicated one, and
to-morrow certainly was nearing the climax. By morning I was sick,
distraught, gloomy, and uncertain. I had breakfast ready when Steele
awoke. I hated to look at him, but when I did it was like being revived.

"He said: 'Russ, you'll trail alongside me to-day and through the rest
of this mess.'

"That gave me another shock. I want to explain to you girls that this
was the first time in my life I was backward at the prospects of a
fight. The shock was the jump of my pulse. My nerve came back. To line
up with Steele against Blome and his gang--that would be great!

"'All right, old man,' I replied. 'We're going after them, then?'

"He only nodded.

"After breakfast I watched him clean and oil and reload his guns. I
didn't need to ask him if he expected to use them. I didn't need to urge
upon him Captain Neal's command.

"'Russ,' said Steele, 'we'll go in together. But before we get to town
I'll leave you and circle and come in at the back of the Hope So. You
hurry on ahead, post Morton and his men, get the lay of the gang, if
possible, and then be at the Hope So when I come in.'

"I didn't ask him if I had a free hand with my gun. I intended to have
that. We left camp and hurried toward town. It was near noon when we
separated.

"I came down the road, apparently from Sampson's ranch. There was a
crowd around the ruins of Steele's house. It was one heap of crumbled
'dobe bricks and burned logs, still hot and smoking. No attempt had been
made to dig into the ruins. The curious crowd was certain that Steele
lay buried under all that stuff. One feature of that night assault made
me ponder. Daylight discovered the bodies of three dead men, rustlers,
who had been killed, the report went out, by random shots. Other
participants in the affair had been wounded. I believed Morton and his
men, under cover of the darkness and in the melee, had sent in some
shots not calculated upon the program.

"From there I hurried to town. Just as I had expected, Morton and Zimmer
were lounging in front of the Hope So. They had company, disreputable
and otherwise. As yet Morton's crowd had not come under suspicion. He
was wild for news of Steele, and when I gave it, and outlined the plan,
he became as cool and dark and grim as any man of my kind could have
wished. He sent Zimmer to get the others of their clique. Then he
acquainted me with a few facts, although he was noncommittal in regard
to my suspicion as to the strange killing of the three rustlers.

"Blome, Bo Snecker, Hilliard, and Pickens, the ringleaders, had painted
the town in celebration of Steele's death. They all got gloriously drunk
except old man Snecker. He had cold feet, they said. They were too happy
to do any more shooting or mind what the old rustler cautioned. It was
two o'clock before they went to bed.

"This morning, after eleven, one by one they appeared with their
followers. The excitement had died down. Ranger Steele was out of the
way and Linrock was once more wide open, free and easy. Blome alone
seemed sullen and spiritless, unresponsive to his comrades and their
admirers. And now, at the time of my arrival, the whole gang, with the
exception of old Snecker, were assembled in the Hope So.

"'Zimmer will be clever enough to drift his outfit along one or two at a
time?' I asked Morton, and he reassured me. Then we went into the
saloon.

"There were perhaps sixty or seventy men in the place, more than half of
whom were in open accord with Blome's gang. Of the rest there were many
of doubtful repute, and a few that might have been neutral, yet all the
time were secretly burning to help any cause against these rustlers. At
all events, I gathered that impression from the shadowed faces, the
tense bodies, the too-evident indication of anything but careless
presence there. The windows were open. The light was clear. Few men
smoked, but all had a drink before them. There was the ordinary subdued
hum of conversation. I surveyed the scene, picked out my position so as
to be close to Steele when he entered, and sauntered round to it. Morton
aimlessly leaned against a post.

"Presently Zimmer came in with a man and they advanced to the bar. Other
men entered as others went out. Blome, Bo Snecker, Hilliard, and Pickens
had a table full in the light of the open windows. I recognized the
faces of the two last-named, but I had not, until Morton informed me,
known who they were. Pickens was little, scrubby, dusty, sandy, mottled,
and he resembled a rattlesnake. Hilliard was big, gaunt, bronzed, with
huge mustache and hollow, fierce eyes. I never had seen a grave-robber,
but I imagined one would be like Hilliard. Bo Snecker was a sleek, slim,
slender, hard-looking boy, marked dangerous, because he was too young
and too wild to have caution or fear. Blome, the last of the bunch,
showed the effects of a bad night.

"You girls remember how handsome he was, but he didn't look it now. His
face was swollen, dark, red, and as it had been bright, now it was dull.
Indeed, he looked sullen, shamed, sore. He was sober now. Thought was
written on his clouded brow. He was awakening now to the truth that the
day before had branded him a coward and sent him out to bolster up
courage with drink. His vanity had begun to bleed. He knew, if his
faithful comrades had not awakened to it yet, that his prestige had been
ruined. For a gunman, he had suffered the last degradation. He had been
bidden to draw and he had failed of the nerve.

"He breathed heavily; his eyes were not clear; his hands were shaky.
Almost I pitied this rustler who very soon must face an incredibly swift
and mercilessly fatal Ranger. Face him, too, suddenly, as if the grave
had opened to give up its dead.

"Friends and comrades of this center group passed to and fro, and there
was much lazy, merry, though not loud, talk. The whole crowd was still
half-asleep. It certainly was an auspicious hour for Steele to confront
them, since that duty was imperative. No man knew the stunning
paralyzing effect of surprise better than Steele. I, of course, must
take my cue from him, or the sudden development of events.

"But Jack Blome did not enter into my calculations. I gave him, at most,
about a minute to live after Steele entered the place. I meant to keep
sharp eyes all around. I knew, once with a gun out, Steele could kill
Blome's comrades at the table as quick as lightning, if he chose. I
rather thought my game was to watch his outside partners. This was
right, and as it turned out, enabled me to save Steele's life.

"Moments passed and still the Ranger did not come. I began to get
nervous. Had he been stopped? I scouted the idea. Who could have stopped
him, then? Probably the time seemed longer than it really was. Morton
showed the strain, also. Other men looked drawn, haggard, waiting as if
expecting a thunderbolt. Once in my roving gaze I caught Blandy's glinty
eye on me. I didn't like the gleam. I said to myself I'd watch him if I
had to do it out of the back of my head. Blandy, by the way, is--was--I
should say, the Hope So bartender." I stopped to clear my throat and get
my breath.

"Was," whispered Sally. She quivered with excitement. Miss Sampson bent
eyes upon me that would have stirred a stone man.

"Yes, he was once," I replied ambiguously, but mayhap my grimness
betrayed the truth. "Don't hurry me, Sally. I guarantee you'll be sick
enough presently.

"Well, I kept my eyes shifty. And I reckon I'll never forget that room.
Likely I saw what wasn't really there. In the excitement, the suspense,
I must have made shadows into real substance. Anyway, there was the
half-circle of bearded, swarthy men around Blome's table. There were the
four rustlers--Blome brooding, perhaps vaguely, spiritually, listening
to a knock; there was Bo Snecker, reckless youth, fondling a flower he
had, putting the stem in his glass, then to his lips, and lastly into
the buttonhole of Blome's vest; there was Hilliard, big, gloomy, maybe
with his cavernous eyes seeing the hell where I expected he'd soon be;
and last, the little dusty, scaly Pickens, who looked about to leap and
sting some one.

"In the lull of the general conversation I heard Pickens say: 'Jack,
drink up an' come out of it. Every man has an off day. You've gambled
long enough to know every feller gits called. An' as Steele has cashed,
what the hell do you care?

"Hilliard nodded his ghoul's head and blinked his dead eyes. Bo Snecker
laughed. It wasn't any different laugh from any other boy's. I
remembered then that he killed Hoden. I began to sweat fire. Would
Steele ever come?

"'Jim, the ole man hed cold feet an' he's give 'em to Jack,' said Bo.
'It ain't nothin' to lose your nerve once. Didn't I run like a scared
jack-rabbit from Steele? Watch me if he comes to life, as the ole man
hinted!'

"'About mebbe Steele wasn't in the 'dobe at all. Aw, thet's a joke! I
seen him in bed. I seen his shadder. I heard his shots comin' from the
room. Jack, you seen an' heerd same as me.'

"'Sure. I know the Ranger's cashed,' replied Blome. 'It's not that. I'm
sore, boys.'

"'Deader 'n a door-nail in hell!' replied Pickens, louder, as he lifted
his glass. 'Here's to Lone Star Steele's ghost! An' if I seen it this
minnit I'd ask it to waltz with me!'

"The back door swung violently, and Steele, huge as a giant, plunged
through and leaped square in front of that table.

"Some one of them let out a strange, harsh cry. It wasn't Blome or
Snecker--probably Pickens. He dropped the glass he had lifted. The cry
had stilled the room, so the breaking of the glass was plainly heard.
For a space that must have been short, yet seemed long, everybody stood
tight. Steele with both hands out and down, leaned a little, in a way I
had never seen him do. It was the position of a greyhound, but that was
merely the body of him. Steele's nerve, his spirit, his meaning was
there, like lightning about to strike. Blome maintained a ghastly,
stricken silence.

"Then the instant was plain when he realized this was no ghost of
Steele, but the Ranger in the flesh. Blome's whole frame rippled as
thought jerked him out of his trance. His comrades sat stone-still. Then
Hilliard and Pickens dived without rising from the table. Their haste
broke the spell.

"I wish I could tell it as quick as it happened. But Bo Snecker, turning
white as a sheet, stuck to Blome. All the others failed him, as he had
guessed they would fail. Low curses and exclamations were uttered by men
sliding and pressing back, but the principals were mute. I was thinking
hard, yet I had no time to get to Steele's side. I, like the rest, was
held fast. But I kept my eyes sweeping around, then back again to that
center pair.

"Blome slowly rose. I think he did it instinctively. Because if he had
expected his first movement to start the action he never would have
moved. Snecker sat partly on the rail of his chair, with both feet
square on the floor, and he never twitched a muscle. There was a
striking difference in the looks of these two rustlers. Snecker had
burning holes for eyes in his white face. At the last he was staunch,
defiant, game to the core. He didn't think. But Blome faced death and
knew it. It was infinitely more than the facing of foes, the taking of
stock, preliminary to the even break. Blome's attitude was that of a
trapped wolf about to start into savage action; nevertheless, equally it
was the pitifully weak stand of a ruffian against ruthless and powerful
law.

"The border of Pecos County could have had no greater lesson than
this--Blome face-to-face with the Ranger. That part of the border
present saw its most noted exponent of lawlessness a coward, almost
powerless to go for his gun, fatally sure of his own doom.

"But that moment, seeming so long, really so short, had to end. Blome
made a spasmodic upheaval of shoulder and arm. Snecker a second later
flashed into movement.

"Steele blurred in my sight. His action couldn't be followed. But I saw
his gun, waving up, flame red once--twice--and the reports almost boomed
together.

"Blome bent forward, arm down, doubled up, and fell over the table and
slid to the floor.

"But Snecker's gun cracked with Steele's last shot. I heard the bullet
strike Steele. It made me sick as if it had hit me. But Steele never
budged. Snecker leaped up, screaming, his gun sputtering to the floor.
His left hand swept to his right arm, which had been shattered by
Steele's bullet.

"Blood streamed everywhere. His screams were curses, and then ended,
testifying to a rage hardly human. Then, leaping, he went down on his
knees after the gun.

"Don't pick it up," called Steele; his command would have checked anyone
save an insane man. For an instant it even held Snecker. On his knees,
right arm hanging limp, left extended, and face ghastly with agony and
fiendish fury, he was certainly an appalling sight.

"'Bo, you're courtin' death,' called a hard voice from the crowd.

"'Snecker, wait. Don't make me kill you!' cried Steele swiftly. 'You're
still a boy. Surrender! You'll outlive your sentence many years. I
promise clemency. Hold, you fool!'

"But Snecker was not to be denied the last game move. He scrabbled for
his gun. Just then something, a breathtaking intuition--I'll never know
what--made me turn my head. I saw the bartender deliberately aim a huge
gun at Steele. If he had not been so slow, I would have been too late. I
whirled and shot. Talk about nick of time! Blandy pulled trigger just as
my bullet smashed into his head.

"He dropped dead behind the bar and his gun dropped in front. But he had
hit Steele.

"The Ranger staggered, almost fell. I thought he was done, and, yelling,
I sped to him.

"But he righted himself. Then I wheeled again. Someone in the crowd
killed Bo Snecker as he wobbled up with his gun. That was the signal for
a wild run for outdoors, for cover. I heard the crack of guns and
whistle of lead. I shoved Steele back of the bar, falling over Blandy as
I did so.

"When I got up Steele was leaning over the bar with a gun in each hand.
There was a hot fight then for a minute or so, but I didn't fire a shot.
Morton and his crowd were busy. Men ran everywhere, shooting, ducking,
cursing. The room got blue with smoke till you couldn't see, and then
the fight changed to the street.

"Steele and I ran out. There was shooting everywhere. Morton's crowd
appeared to be in pursuit of rustlers in all directions. I ran with
Steele, and did not observe his condition until suddenly he fell right
down in the street. Then he looked so white and so bloody I thought he'd
stopped another bullet and--"

Here Miss Sampson's agitation made it necessary for me to halt my story,
and I hoped she had heard enough. But she was not sick, as Sally
appeared to me; she simply had been overcome by emotion. And presently,
with a blaze in her eyes that showed how her soul was aflame with
righteous wrath at these rustlers and ruffians, and how, whether she
knew it or not, the woman in her loved a fight, she bade me go on. So I
persevered, and, with poor little Sally sagging against me, I went on
with the details of that fight.

I told how Steele rebounded from his weakness and could no more have
been stopped than an avalanche. For all I saw, he did not use his guns
again. Here, there, everywhere, as Morton and his squad cornered a
rustler, Steele would go in, ordering surrender, promising protection.
He seemed to have no thoughts of bullets. I could not hold him back, and
it was hard to keep pace with him. How many times he was shot at I had
no idea, but it was many. He dragged forth this and that rustler, and
turned them all over to Morton to be guarded. More than once he
protected a craven rustler from the summary dealing Morton wanted to see
in order.

I told Miss Sampson particularly how Steele appeared to me, what his
effect was on these men, how toward the end of the fight rustlers were
appealing to him to save them from these new-born vigilantes. I believed
I drew a picture of the Ranger that would live forever in her heart of
hearts. If she were a hero-worshiper she would have her fill.

One thing that was strange to me--leaving fight, action, blood, peril
out of the story--the singular exultation, for want of some better term,
that I experienced in recalling Steele's look, his wonderful cold,
resistless, inexplicable presence, his unquenchable spirit which was at
once deadly and merciful. Other men would have killed where he saved. I
recalled this magnificent spiritual something about him, remembered it
strongest in the ring of his voice as he appealed to Bo Snecker not to
force him to kill. Then I told how we left a dozen prisoners under guard
and went back to the Hope So to find Blome where he had fallen. Steele's
bullet had cut one of the petals of the rose Snecker had playfully put
in the rustler's buttonhole. Bright and fatal target for an eye like
Steele's! Bo Snecker lay clutching his gun, his face set rigidly in that
last fierce expression of his savage nature. There were five other dead
men on the floor, and, significant of the work of Steele's unknown
allies, Hilliard and Pickens were among them.

"Steele and I made for camp then," I concluded. "We didn't speak a word
on the way out. When we reached camp all Steele said was for me to go
off and leave him alone. He looked sick. I went off, only not very far.
I knew what was wrong with him, and it wasn't bullet-wounds. I was near
when he had his spell and fought it out.

"Strange how spilling blood affects some men! It never bothered me much.
I hope I'm human, too. I certainly felt an awful joy when I sent that
bullet into Blandy's bloated head in time. And I'll always feel that way
about it. But Steele's different."




Chapter 12

TORN TWO WAYS


Steele lay in a shady little glade, partly walled by the masses of
upreared rocks that we used as a lookout point. He was asleep, yet far
from comfortable. The bandage I had put around his head had been made
from strips of soiled towel, and, having collected sundry bloody spots,
it was an unsightly affair. There was a blotch of dried blood down one
side of Steele's face. His shirt bore more dark stains, and in one place
was pasted fast to his shoulder where a bandage marked the location of
his other wound. A number of green flies were crawling over him and
buzzing around his head. He looked helpless, despite his giant size; and
certainly a great deal worse off than I had intimated, and, in fact,
than he really was.

Miss Sampson gasped when she saw him and both her hands flew to her
breast.

"Girls, don't make any noise," I whispered. "I'd rather he didn't wake
suddenly to find you here. Go round behind the rocks there. I'll wake
him, and call you presently."

They complied with my wish, and I stepped down to Steele and gave him a
little shake. He awoke instantly.

"Hello!" I said, "Want a drink?"

"Water or champagne?" he inquired.

I stared at him. "I've some champagne behind the rocks," I added.

"Water, you locoed son of a gun!"

He looked about as thirsty as a desert coyote; also, he looked flighty.
I was reaching for the canteen when I happened to think what pleasure it
would be to Miss Sampson to minister to him, and I drew back. "Wait a
little." Then with an effort I plunged. "Vaughn, listen. Miss Sampson
and Sally are here."

I thought he was going to jump up, he started so violently, and I
pressed him back.

"She--Why, she's been here all the time--Russ, you haven't
double-crossed me?"

"Steele!" I exclaimed. He was certainly out of his head.

"Pure accident, old man."

He appeared to be half stunned, yet an eager, strange, haunting look
shone in his eyes. "Fool!" he exclaimed.

"Can't you make the ordeal easier for her?" I asked.

"This'll be hard on Diane. She's got to be told things!"

"Ah!" breathed Steele, sinking back. "Make it easier for her--Russ,
you're a damned schemer. You have given me the double-cross. You have
and she's going to."

"We're in bad, both of us," I replied thickly. "I've ideas, crazy enough
maybe. I'm between the devil and the deep sea, I tell you. I'm about
ready to show yellow. All the same, I say, see Miss Sampson and talk to
her, even if you can't talk straight."

"All right, Russ," he replied hurriedly. "But, God, man, don't I look a
sight! All this dirt and blood!"

"Well, old man, if she takes that bungled mug of yours in her lap, you
can be sure you're loved. You needn't jump out of your boots! Brace up
now, for I'm going to bring the girls." As I got up to go I heard him
groan. I went round behind the stones and found the girls. "Come on," I
said. "He's awake now, but a little queer. Feverish. He gets that way
sometimes. It won't last long." I led Miss Sampson and Sally back into
the shade of our little camp glade.

Steele had gotten worse all in a moment. Also, the fool had pulled the
bandage off his head; his wound had begun to bleed anew, and the flies
were paying no attention to his weak efforts to brush them away. His
head rolled as we reached his side, and his eyes were certainly wild and
wonderful and devouring enough. "Who's that?" he demanded.

"Easy there, old man," I replied. "I've brought the girls." Miss Sampson
shook like a leaf in the wind.

"So you've come to see me die?" asked Steele in a deep and hollow voice.
Miss Sampson gave me a lightning glance of terror.

"He's only off his head," I said. "Soon as we wash and bathe his head,
cool his temperature, he'll be all right."

"Oh!" cried Miss Sampson, and dropped to her knees, flinging her gloves
aside. She lifted Steele's head into her lap. When I saw her tears
falling upon his face I felt worse than a villain. She bent over him for
a moment, and one of the tender hands at his cheeks met the flow of
fresh blood and did not shrink. "Sally," she said, "bring the scarf out
of my coat. There's a veil too. Bring that. Russ, you get me some
water--pour some in the pan there."

"Water!" whispered Steele.

She gave him a drink. Sally came with the scarf and veil, and then she
backed away to the stone, and sat there. The sight of blood had made her
a little pale and weak. Miss Sampson's hands trembled and her tears
still fell, but neither interfered with her tender and skillful dressing
of that bullet wound.

Steele certainly said a lot of crazy things. "But why'd you come--why're
you so good--when you don't love me?"

"Oh, but--I do--love you," whispered Miss Sampson brokenly.

"How do I know?"

"I am here. I tell you."

There was a silence, during which she kept on bathing his head, and he
kept on watching her. "Diane!" he broke out suddenly.

"Yes--yes."

"That won't stop the pain in my head."

"Oh, I hope so."

"Kiss me--that will," he whispered. She obeyed as a child might have,
and kissed his damp forehead close to the red furrow where the bullet
cut.

"Not there," Steele whispered.

Then blindly, as if drawn by a magnet, she bent to his lips. I could not
turn away my head, though my instincts were delicate enough. I believe
that kiss was the first kiss of love for both Diane Sampson and Vaughn
Steele. It was so strange and so long, and somehow beautiful. Steele
looked rapt. I could only see the side of Diane's face, and that was
white, like snow. After she raised her head she seemed unable, for a
moment, to take up her task where it had been broken off, and Steele lay
as if he really were dead. Here I got up, and seating myself beside
Sally, I put an arm around her. "Sally dear, there are others," I said.

"Oh, Russ--what's to come of it all?" she faltered, and then she broke
down and began to cry softly. I would have been only too glad to tell
her what hung in the balance, one way or another, had I known. But
surely, catastrophe! Then I heard Steele's voice again and its
huskiness, its different tone, made me fearful, made me strain my ears
when I tried, or thought I tried, not to listen.

"Diane, you know how hard my duty is, don't you?"

"Yes, I know--I think I know."

"You've guessed--about your father?"

"I've seen all along you must clash. But it needn't be so bad. If I can
only bring you two together--Ah! please don't speak any more. You're
excited now, just not yourself."

"No, listen. We must clash, your father and I. Diane, he's not--"

"Not what he seems! Oh, I know, to my sorrow."

"What do you know?" She seemed drawn by a will stronger than
her own. "To my shame I know. He has been greedy, crafty,
unscrupulous--dishonest."

"Diane, if he were only that! That wouldn't make my duty torture. That
wouldn't ruin your life. Dear, sweet girl, forgive me--your father's--"

"Hush, Vaughn. You're growing excited. It will not do. Please--please--"

"Diane, your father's--chief of this--gang that I came to break up."

"My God, hear him! How dare you--Oh, Vaughn, poor, poor boy, you're out
of your mind! Sally, Russ, what shall we do? He's worse. He's saying the
most dreadful things! I--I can't bear to hear him!"

Steele heaved a sigh and closed his eyes. I walked away with Sally, led
her to and fro in a shady aisle beyond the rocks, and tried to comfort
her as best I could. After a while, when we returned to the glade, Miss
Sampson had considerable color in her cheeks, and Steele was leaning
against the rock, grave and sad. I saw that he had recovered and he had
reached the critical point. "Hello, Russ," he said. "Sprung a surprise
on me, didn't you? Miss Sampson says I've been a little flighty while
she bandaged me up. I hope I wasn't bad. I certainly feel better now. I
seem to--to have dreamed."

Miss Sampson flushed at his concluding words. Then silence ensued. I
could not think of anything to say and Sally was dumb. "You all seem
very strange," said Miss Sampson.

When Steele's face turned gray to his lips I knew the moment had come.
"No doubt. We all feel so deeply for you," he said.

"Me? Why?"

"Because the truth must no longer be concealed."

It was her turn to blanch, and her eyes, strained, dark as night,
flashed from one of us to the other.

"The truth! Tell it then." She had more courage than any of us.

"Miss Sampson, your father is the leader of this gang of rustlers I
have been tracing. Your cousin George Wright, is his right-hand man."

Miss Sampson heard, but she did not believe.

"Tell her, Russ," Steele added huskily, turning away. Wildly she whirled
to me. I would have given anything to have been able to lie to her. As
it was I could not speak. But she read the truth in my face. And she
collapsed as if she had been shot. I caught her and laid her on the
grass. Sally, murmuring and crying, worked over her. I helped. But
Steele stood aloof, dark and silent, as if he hoped she would never
return to consciousness.

When she did come to, and began to cry, to moan, to talk frantically,
Steele staggered away, while Sally and I made futile efforts to calm
her. All we could do was to prevent her doing herself violence.
Presently, when her fury of emotion subsided, and she began to show a
hopeless stricken shame, I left Sally with her and went off a little way
myself. How long I remained absent I had no idea, but it was no
inconsiderable length of time. Upon my return, to my surprise and
relief, Miss Sampson had recovered her composure, or at least,
self-control. She stood leaning against the rock where Steele had been,
and at this moment, beyond any doubt, she was supremely more beautiful
than I had ever seen her. She was white, tragic, wonderful. "Where is
Mr. Steele?" she asked. Her tone and her look did not seem at all
suggestive of the mood I expected to find her in--one of beseeching
agony, of passionate appeal to Steele not to ruin her father.

"I'll find him," I replied turning away.

Steele was readily found and came back with me. He was as unlike himself
as she was strange. But when they again faced each other, then they were
indeed new to me.

"I want to know--what you must do," she said. Steele told her briefly,
and his voice was stern.

"Those--those criminals outside of my own family don't concern me now.
But can my father and cousin be taken without bloodshed? I want to know
the absolute truth." Steele knew that they could not be, but he could
not tell her so. Again she appealed to me. Thus my part in the situation
grew harder. It hurt me so that it made me angry, and my anger made me
cruelly frank.

"No. It can't be done. Sampson and Wright will be desperately hard to
approach, which'll make the chances even. So, if you must know the
truth, it'll be your father and cousin to go under, or it'll be Steele
or me, or any combination luck breaks--or all of us!"

Her self-control seemed to fly to the four winds. Swift as light she
flung herself down before Steele, against his knees, clasped her arms
round him. "Good God! Miss Sampson, you mustn't do that!" implored
Steele. He tried to break her hold with shaking hands, but he could not.

"Listen! Listen!" she cried, and her voice made Steele, and Sally and me
also, still as the rock behind us. "Hear me! Do you think I beg you to
let my father go, for his sake? No! No! I have gloried in your Ranger
duty. I have loved you because of it. But some awful tragedy threatens
here. Listen, Vaughn Steele. Do not you deny me, as I kneel here. I love
you. I never loved any other man. But not for my love do I beseech you.

"There is no help here unless you forswear your duty. Forswear it! Do
not kill my father--the father of the woman who loves you. Worse and
more horrible it would be to let my father kill you! It's I who make
this situation unnatural, impossible. You must forswear your duty. I can
live no longer if you don't. I pray you--" Her voice had sunk to a
whisper, and now it failed. Then she seemed to get into his arms, to
wind herself around him, her hair loosened, her face upturned, white and
spent, her arms blindly circling his neck. She was all love, all
surrender, all supreme appeal, and these, without her beauty, would have
made her wonderful. But her beauty! Would not Steele have been less than
a man or more than a man had he been impervious to it? She was like some
snow-white exquisite flower, broken, and suddenly blighted. She was a
woman then in all that made a woman helpless--in all that made her
mysterious, sacred, absolutely and unutterably more than any other thing
in life. All this time my gaze had been riveted on her only. But when
she lifted her white face, tried to lift it, rather, and he drew her up,
and then when both white faces met and seemed to blend in something
rapt, awesome, tragic as life--then I saw Steele.

I saw a god, a man as beautiful as she was. They might have stood,
indeed, they did stand alone in the heart of a desert--alone in the
world--alone with their love and their agony. It was a solemn and
profound moment for me. I faintly realized how great it must have been
for them, yet all the while there hammered at my mind the vital thing at
stake. Had they forgotten, while I remembered? It might have been only a
moment that he held her. It might have been my own agitation that
conjured up such swift and whirling thoughts. But if my mind sometimes
played me false my eyes never had. I thought I saw Diane Sampson die in
Steele's arms; I could have sworn his heart was breaking; and mine was
on the point of breaking, too.

How beautiful they were! How strong, how mercifully strong, yet shaken,
he seemed! How tenderly, hopelessly, fatally appealing she was in that
hour of her broken life! If I had been Steele I would have forsworn my
duty, honor, name, service for her sake. Had I mind enough to divine his
torture, his temptation, his narrow escape? I seemed to feel them, at
any rate, and while I saw him with a beautiful light on his face, I saw
him also ghastly, ashen, with hands that shook as they groped around
her, loosing her, only to draw her convulsively back again. It was the
saddest sight I had ever seen. Death was nothing to it. Here was the
death of happiness. He must wreck the life of the woman who loved him
and whom he loved. I was becoming half frantic, almost ready to cry out
the uselessness of this scene, almost on the point of pulling them
apart, when Sally dragged me away. Her clinging hold then made me feel
perhaps a little of what Miss Sampson's must have been to Steele.

How different the feeling when it was mine! I could have thrust them
apart, after all my schemes and tricks, to throw them together, in
vague, undefined fear of their embrace. Still, when love beat at my own
pulses, when Sally's soft hand held me tight and she leaned to me--that
was different. I was glad to be led away--glad to have a chance to pull
myself together. But was I to have that chance? Sally, who in the stife
of emotion had been forgotten, might have to be reckoned with. Deep
within me, some motive, some purpose, was being born in travail. I did
not know what, but instinctively I feared Sally. I feared her because I
loved her. My wits came back to combat my passion. This hazel-eyed girl,
soft, fragile creature, might be harder to move than the Ranger. But
could she divine a motive scarcely yet formed in my brain? Suddenly I
became cool, with craft to conceal.

"Oh, Russ! What's the matter with you?" she queried quickly. "Can't
Diane and Steele, you and I ride away from this bloody, bad country? Our
own lives, our happiness, come first, do they not?"

"They ought to, I suppose," I muttered, fighting against the insidious
sweetness of her. I knew then I must keep my lips shut or betray myself.

"You look so strange. Russ, I wouldn't want you to kiss me with that
mouth. Thin, shut lips--smile! Soften and kiss me! Oh, you're so cold,
strange! You chill me!"

"Dear child, I'm badly shaken," I said. "Don't expect me to be natural
yet. There are things you can't guess. So much depended upon--Oh, never
mind! I'll go now. I want to be alone, to think things out. Let me go,
Sally."

She held me only the tighter, tried to pull my face around. How
intuitively keen women were. She felt my distress, and that growing,
stern, and powerful thing I scarcely dared to acknowledge to myself.
Strangely, then, I relaxed and faced her. There was no use trying to
foil these feminine creatures. Every second I seemed to grow farther
from her. The swiftness of this mood of mine was my only hope. I
realized I had to get away quickly, and make up my mind after that what
I intended to do. It was an earnest, soulful, and loving pair of eyes
that I met. What did she read in mine? Her hands left mine to slide to
my shoulders, to slip behind my neck, to lock there like steel bands.
Here was my ordeal. Was it to be as terrible as Steele's had been? I
thought it would be, and I swore by all that was rising grim and cold in
me that I would be strong. Sally gave a little cry that cut like a blade
in my heart, and then she was close-pressed upon me, her quivering
breast beating against mine, her eyes, dark as night now, searching my
soul.

She saw more than I knew, and with her convulsive clasp of me confirmed
my half-formed fears. Then she kissed me, kisses that had no more of
girlhood or coquetry or joy or anything but woman's passion to blind and
hold and tame. By their very intensity I sensed the tiger in me. And it
was the tiger that made her new and alluring sweetness fail of its
intent. I did not return one of her kisses. Just one kiss given
back--and I would be lost.

"Oh, Russ, I'm your promised wife!" she whispered at my lips. "Soon, you
said! I want it to be soon! To-morrow!" All the subtlety, the
intelligence, the cunning, the charm, the love that made up the whole of
woman's power, breathed in her pleading. What speech known to the tongue
could have given me more torture? She chose the strongest weapon nature
afforded her. And had the calamity to consider been mine alone, I would
have laughed at it and taken Sally at her word. Then I told her in
short, husky sentences what had depended on Steele: that I loved the
Ranger Service, but loved him more; that his character, his life,
embodied this Service I loved; that I had ruined him; and now I would
forestall him, do his work, force the issue myself or die in the
attempt.

"Dearest, it's great of you!" she cried. "But the cost! If you kill one
of my kin I'll--I'll shrink from you! If you're killed--Oh, the thought
is dreadful! You've done your share. Let Steele--some other Ranger
finish it. I swear I don't plead for my uncle or my cousin, for their
sakes. If they are vile, let them suffer. Russ, it's you I think of! Oh,
my pitiful little dreams! I wanted so to surprise you with my beautiful
home--the oranges, the mossy trees, the mocking-birds. Now you'll never,
never come!"

"But, Sally, there's a chance--a mere chance I can do the job without--"

Then she let go of me. She had given up. I thought she was going to
drop, and drew her toward the stone. I cursed the day I ever saw Neal
and the service. Where, now, was the arch prettiness, the gay, sweet
charm of Sally Langdon? She looked as if she were suffering from a
desperate physical injury. And her final breakdown showed how, one way
or another, I was lost to her.

As she sank on the stone I had my supreme wrench, and it left me numb,
hard, in a cold sweat. "Don't betray me! I'll forestall him! He's
planned nothing for to-day," I whispered hoarsely. "Sally--you dearest,
gamest little girl in the world! Remember I loved you, even if I
couldn't prove it your way. It's for his sake. I'm to blame for their
love. Some day my act will look different to you. Good-by!"




Chapter 13

RUSS SITTELL IN ACTION


I ran like one possessed of devils down that rough slope, hurdling the
stones and crashing through the brush, with a sound in my ears that was
not all the rush of the wind. When I reached a level I kept running; but
something dragged at me. I slowed down to a walk. Never in my life had I
been victim of such sensation. I must flee from something that was
drawing me back. Apparently one side of my mind was unalterably fixed,
while the other was a hurrying conglomeration of flashes of thought,
reception of sensations. I could not get calm.

By and by, almost involuntarily, with a fleeting look backward as if in
expectation of pursuit, I hurried faster on. Action seemed to make my
state less oppressive; it eased the weight upon me. But the farther I
went on, the harder it was to continue. I was turning my back upon love,
happiness, success in life, perhaps on life itself. I was doing that,
but my decision had not been absolute. There seemed no use to go on
farther until I was absolutely sure of myself. I received a clear
warning thought that such work as seemed haunting and driving me could
never be carried out in the mood under which I labored. I hung on to
that thought. Several times I slowed up, then stopped, only to tramp on
again.

At length, as I mounted a low ridge, Linrock lay bright and green before
me, not faraway, and the sight was a conclusive check. There were
mesquites on the ridge, and I sought the shade beneath them. It was the
noon hour, with hot, glary sun and no wind. Here I had to have out my
fight. If ever in my varied life of exciting adventure I strove to
think, to understand myself, to see through difficulties, I assuredly
strove then. I was utterly unlike myself; I could not bring the old self
back; I was not the same man I once had been. But I could understand
why. It was because of Sally Langdon, the gay and roguish girl who had
bewitched me, the girl whom love had made a woman--the kind of woman
meant to make life beautiful for me.

I saw her changing through all those weeks, holding many of the old
traits and graces, acquiring new character of mind and body, to become
what I had just fled from--a woman sweet, fair, loyal, loving,
passionate.

Temptation assailed me. To have her to-morrow--my wife! She had said it.
Just twenty-four little hours, and she would be mine--the only woman I
had ever really coveted, the only one who had ever found the good in me.
The thought was alluring. I followed it out, a long, happy stage-ride
back to Austin, and then by train to her home where, as she had said,
the oranges grew and the trees waved with streamers of gray moss and the
mocking-birds made melody. I pictured that home. I wondered that long
before I had not associated wealth and luxury with her family. Always I
had owned a weakness for plantations, for the agricultural life with its
open air and freedom from towns.

I saw myself riding through the cotton and rice and cane, home to the
stately old mansion, where long-eared hounds bayed me welcome and a
woman looked for me and met me with happy and beautiful smiles. There
might--there _would_ be children. And something new, strange,
confounding with its emotion, came to life deep in my heart. There would
be children! Sally their mother; I their father! The kind of life a
lonely Ranger always yearned for and never had! I saw it all, felt it
keenly, lived its sweetness in an hour of temptation that made me weak
physically and my spirit faint and low.

For what had I turned my back on this beautiful, all-satisfying
prospect? Was it to arrest and jail a few rustlers? Was it to meet that
mocking Sampson face to face and show him my shield and reach for my
gun? Was it to kill that hated Wright? Was it to save the people of
Linrock from further greed, raids, murder? Was it to please and aid my
old captain, Neal of the Rangers? Was it to save the Service to the
State?

No--a thousand times no. It was for the sake of Steele. Because he was a
wonderful man! Because I had been his undoing! Because I had thrown
Diane Sampson into his arms! That had been my great error. This Ranger
had always been the wonder and despair of his fellow officers, so
magnificent a machine, so sober, temperate, chaste, so unremittingly
loyal to the Service, so strangely stern and faithful to his conception
of the law, so perfect in his fidelity to duty. He was the model, the
inspiration, the pride of all of us. To me, indeed, he represented the
Ranger Service. He was the incarnation of that spirit which fighting
Texas had developed to oppose wildness and disorder and crime. He would
carry through this Linrock case; but even so, if he were not killed, his
career would be ruined. He might save the Service, yet at the cost of
his happiness. He was not a machine; he was a man. He might be a perfect
Ranger; still he was a human being.

The loveliness, the passion, the tragedy of a woman, great as they were,
had not power to shake him from his duty. Futile, hopeless, vain her
love had been to influence him. But there had flashed over me with
subtle, overwhelming suggestion that not futile, not vain was _my_ love
to save him! Therefore, beyond and above all other claims, and by reason
of my wrong to him, his claim came first.

It was then there was something cold and deathlike in my soul; it was
then I bade farewell to Sally Langdon. For I knew, whatever happened, of
one thing I was sure--I would have to kill either Sampson or Wright.
Snecker could be managed; Sampson might be trapped into arrest; but
Wright had no sense, no control, no fear. He would snarl like a panther
and go for his gun, and he would have to be killed. This, of all
consummations, was the one to be calculated upon. And, of course, by
Sally's own words, that contingency would put me forever outside the
pale for her.

I did not deceive myself; I did not accept the slightest intimation of
hope; I gave her up. And then for a time regret, remorse, pain, darkness
worked their will with me.

I came out of it all bitter and callous and sore, in the most fitting of
moods to undertake a difficult and deadly enterprise. Miss Sampson
completely slipped my mind; Sally became a wraith as of some one dead;
Steele began to fade. In their places came the bushy-bearded Snecker,
the olive-skinned Sampson with his sharp eyes, and dark, evil faced
Wright. Their possibilities began to loom up, and with my speculation
returned tenfold more thrilling and sinister the old strange zest of the
man-hunt.

It was about one o'clock when I strode into Linrock. The streets for the
most part were deserted. I went directly to the hall where Morton and
Zimmer, with their men, had been left by Steele to guard the prisoners.
I found them camping out in the place, restless, somber, anxious. The
fact that only about half the original number of prisoners were left
struck me as further indication of Morton's summary dealing. But when I
questioned him as to the decrease in number, he said bluntly that they
had escaped. I did not know whether or not to believe him. But that
didn't matter. I tried to get in some more questions, only I found that
Morton and Zimmer meant to be heard first. "Where's Steele?" they
demanded.

"He's out of town, in a safe place," I replied. "Too bad hurt for
action. I'm to rush through with the rest of the deal."

"That's good. We've waited long enough. This gang has been split, an'
if we hurry they'll never get together again. Old man Snecker showed up
to-day. He's drawin' the outfit in again. Reckon he's waitin' for
orders. Sure he's ragin' since Bo was killed. This old fox will be
dangerous if he gets goin'."

"Where is he now?" I queried.

"Over at the Hope So. Must be a dozen of the gang there. But he's the
only leader left we know of. If we get him, the rustler gang will be
broken for good. He's sent word down here for us to let our prisoners go
or there'd be a damn bloody fight. We haven't sent our answer yet. Was
hopin' Steele would show up. An' now we're sure glad you're back."

"Morton, I'll take the answer," I replied quickly. "Now there're two
things. Do you know if Sampson and Wright are at the ranch?"

"They were an hour ago. We had word. Zimmer saw Dick."

"All right. Have you any horses handy?"

"Sure. Those hitched outside belong to us."

"I want you to take a man with you, in a few moments, and ride round the
back roads and up to Sampson's house. Get off and wait under the trees
till you hear me shoot or yell, then come fast."

Morton's breast heaved; he whistled as he breathed; his neck churned.
"God Almighty! So _there_ the scent leads! We always wondered--half
believed. But no one spoke--no one had any nerve." Morton moistened his
lips; his face was livid; his big hands shook. "Russ, you can gamble on
me."

"Good. Well, that's all. Come out and get me a horse."

When I had mounted and was half-way to the Hope So, my plan, as far as
Snecker was concerned, had been formed. It was to go boldy into the
saloon, ask for the rustler, first pretend I had a reply from Morton and
then, when I had Snecker's ear, whisper a message supposedly from
Sampson. If Snecker was too keen to be decoyed I could at least surprise
him off his guard and kill him, then run for my horse. The plan seemed
clever to me. I had only one thing to fear, and that was a possibility
of the rustlers having seen my part in Steele's defense the other day.
That had to be risked. There were always some kind of risks to be faced.

It was scarcely a block and a half to the Hope So. Before I arrived I
knew I had been seen. When I dismounted before the door I felt cold, yet
there was an exhilaration in the moment. I never stepped more naturally
and carelessly into the saloon. It was full of men. There were men
behind the bar helping themselves. Evidently Blandy's place had not been
filled. Every face near the door was turned toward me; dark, intent,
scowling, malignant they were, and made me need my nerve.

"Say, boys, I've a word for Snecker," I called, quite loud. Nobody
stirred. I swept my glance over the crowd, but did not see Snecker. "I'm
in some hurry," I added.

"Bill ain't here," said a man at the table nearest me. "Air you comin'
from Morton?"

"Nit. But I'm not yellin' this message."

The rustler rose, and in a few long strides confronted me.

"Word from Sampson!" I whispered, and the rustler stared. "I'm in his
confidence. He's got to see Bill at once. Sampson sends word he's
quit--he's done--he's through. The jig is up, and he means to hit the
road out of Linrock."

"Bill'll kill him surer 'n hell," muttered the rustler. "But we all said
it'd come to thet. An' what'd Wright say?"

"Wright! Why, he's cashed in. Didn't you-all hear? Reckon Sampson shot
him."

The rustler cursed his amaze and swung his rigid arm with fist clenched
tight. "When did Wright get it?"

"A little while ago. I don't know how long. Anyway, I saw him lyin' dead
on the porch. An' say, pard, I've got to rustle. Send Bill up quick as
he comes. Tell him Sampson wants to turn over all his stock an' then
light out."

I backed to the door, and the last I saw of the rustler he was standing
there in a scowling amaze. I had fooled him all right. If only I had the
luck to have Snecker come along soon. Mounting, I trotted the horse
leisurely up the street. Business and everything else was at a
standstill in Linrock these days. The doors of the stores were
barricaded. Down side streets, however, I saw a few people, a buckboard,
and stray cattle.

When I reached the edge of town I turned aside a little and took a look
at the ruins of Steele's adobe house. The walls and debris had all been
flattened, scattered about, and if anything of, value had escaped
destruction it had disappeared. Steele, however, had left very little
that would have been of further use to him. Turning again, I continued
on my way up to the ranch. It seemed that, though I was eager rather
than backward, my mind seized avidly upon suggestion or attraction, as
if to escape the burden of grim pondering. When about half-way across
the flat, and perhaps just out of gun-shot sound of Sampson's house, I
heard the rapid clatter of hoofs on the hard road. I wheeled, expecting
to see Morton and his man, and was ready to be chagrined at their coming
openly instead of by the back way. But this was only one man, and it was
not Morton. He seemed of big build, and he bestrode a fine bay horse.
There evidently was reason for hurry, too. At about one hundred yards,
when I recognized Snecker, complete astonishment possessed me.

Well it was I had ample time to get on my guard! In wheeling my horse I
booted him so hard that he reared. As I had been warm I had my sombrero
over the pommel of the saddle. And when the head of my horse blocked any
possible sight of movement of my hand, I pulled my gun and held it
concealed under my sombrero. This rustler had bothered me in my
calculations. And here he came galloping, alone. Exultation would have
been involuntary then but for the sudden shock, and then the cold
settling of temper, the breathless suspense. Snecker pulled his huge bay
and pounded to halt abreast of me. Luck favored me. Had I ever had
anything but luck in these dangerous deals?

Snecker seemed to fume; internally there was a volcano. His wide
sombrero and bushy beard hid all of his face except his eyes, which were
deepset furnaces. He, too, like his lieutenant, had been carried
completely off balance by the strange message apparently from Sampson.
It was Sampson's name that had fooled and decoyed these men. "Hey!
You're the feller who jest left word fer some one at the Hope So?" he
asked.

"Yes," I replied, while with my left hand I patted the neck of my horse,
holding him still.

"Sampson wants me bad, eh?"

"Reckon there's only one man who wants you more."

Steadily, I met his piercing gaze. This was a rustler not to be long
victim to any ruse. I waited in cold surety.

"You thet cowboy, Russ?" he asked.

"I was--and I'm not!" I replied significantly.

The violent start of this violent outlaw was a rippling jerk of passion.
"What'n hell!" he ejaculated.

"Bill, you're easy."

"Who're you?" he uttered hoarsely.

I watched Snecker with hawk-like keenness. "United States deputy
marshal. Bill, you're under arrest!"

He roared a mad curse as his hand clapped down to his gun. Then I fired
through my sombrero. Snecker's big horse plunged. The rustler fell back,
and one of his legs pitched high as he slid off the lunging steed. His
other foot caught in the stirrup. This fact terribly frightened the
horse. He bolted, dragging the rustler for a dozen jumps. Then Snecker's
foot slipped loose. He lay limp and still and shapeless in the road. I
did not need to go back to look him over.

But to make assurance doubly sure, I dismounted, and went back to where
he lay. My bullet had gone where it had been aimed. As I rode up into
Sampson's court-yard and turned in to the porch I heard loud and angry
voices. Sampson and Wright were quarrelling again. How my lucky star
guided me! I had no plan of action, but my brain was equal to a hundred
lightning-swift evolutions. The voices ceased. The men had heard the
horse. Both of them came out on the porch. In an instant I was again the
lolling impudent cowboy, half under the influence of liquor.

"It's only Russ and he's drunk," said George Wright contemptuously.

"I heard horses trotting off there," replied Sampson. "Maybe the girls
are coming. I bet I teach them not to run off again--Hello, Russ."

He looked haggard and thin, but seemed amiable enough. He was in his
shirt-sleeves and he had come out with a gun in his hand. This he laid
on a table near the wall. He wore no belt. I rode right up to the porch
and, greeting them laconically, made a show of a somewhat tangle-footed
cowboy dismounting. The moment I got off and straightened up, I asked no
more. The game was mine. It was the great hour of my life and I met it
as I had never met another. I looked and acted what I pretended to be,
though a deep and intense passion, an almost ungovernable suspense, an
icy sickening nausea abided with me. All I needed, all I wanted was to
get Sampson and Wright together, or failing that, to maneuver into such
position that I had any kind of a chance. Sampson's gun on the table
made three distinct objects for me to watch and two of them could change
position.

"What do you want here?" demanded Wright. He was red, bloated,
thick-lipped, all fiery and sweaty from drink, though sober on the
moment, and he had the expression of a desperate man in his last stand.
It _was_ his last stand, though he was ignorant of that.

"Me--Say, Wright, I ain't fired yet," I replied, in slow-rising
resentment.

"Well, you're fired now," he replied insolently.

"Who fires me, I'd like to know?" I walked up on the porch and I had a
cigarette in one hand, a match in the other. I struck the match.

"I do," said Wright.

I studied him with apparent amusement. It had taken only one glance
around for me to divine that Sampson would enjoy any kind of a clash
between Wright and me. "Huh! You fired me once before an' it didn't go,
Wright. I reckon you don't stack up here as strong as you think."

He was facing the porch, moody, preoccupied, somber, all the time. Only
a little of his mind was concerned with me. Manifestly there were strong
forces at work. Both men were strained to a last degree, and Wright
could be made to break at almost a word. Sampson laughed mockingly at
this sally of mine, and that stung Wright. He stopped his pacing and
turned his handsome, fiery eyes on me. "Sampson, I won't stand this
man's impudence."

"Aw, Wright, cut that talk. I'm not impudent. Sampson knows I'm a good
fellow, on the square, and I have you sized up about O.K."

"All the same, Russ, you'd better dig out," said Sampson. "Don't kick up
any fuss. We're busy with deals to-day. And I expect visitors."

"Sure. I won't stay around where I ain't wanted," I replied. Then I lit
my cigarette and did not move an inch out of my tracks.

Sampson sat in a chair near the door; the table upon which lay his gun
stood between him and Wright. This position did not invite me to start
anything. But the tension had begun to be felt. Sampson had his sharp
gaze on me. "What'd you come for, anyway?" he asked suddenly.

"Well, I had some news I was asked to fetch in."

"Get it out of you then."

"See here now, Mr. Sampson, the fact is I'm a tender-hearted fellow. I
hate to hurt people's feelin's. And if I was to spring this news in Mr.
Wright's hearin', why, such a sensitive, high-tempered gentleman as he
would go plumb off his nut." Unconcealed sarcasm was the dominant note
in that speech. Wright flared up, yet he was eagerly curious. Sampson,
probably, thought I was only a little worse for drink, and but for the
way I rubbed Wright he would not have tolerated me at all.

"What's this news? You needn't be afraid of my feelings," said Wright.

"Ain't so sure of that," I drawled. "It concerns the lady you're sweet
on, an' the ranger you ain't sweet on."

Sampson jumped up. "Russ, had Diane gone out to meet Steele?" he asked
angrily.

"Sure she had," I replied.

I thought Wright would choke. He was thick-necked anyway, and the gush
of blood made him tear at the soft collar of his shirt. Both men were
excited now, moving about, beginning to rouse. I awaited my chance,
patient, cold, all my feelings shut in the vise of my will.

"How do you know she met Steele?" demanded Sampson.

"I was there. I met Sally at the same time."

"But why should my daughter meet this Ranger?"

"She's in love with him and he's in love with her."

The simple statement might have had the force of a juggernaut. I reveled
in Wright's state, but I felt sorry for Sampson. He had not outlived his
pride. Then I saw the leaping thought--would this daughter side against
him? Would she help to betray him? He seemed to shrivel up, to grow old
while I watched him.

Wright, finding his voice, cursed Diane, cursed the Ranger, then
Sampson, then me.

"You damned, selfish fool!" cried Sampson, in deep, bitter scorn. "All
you think of is yourself. Your loss of the girl! Think once of me--my
home--my life!"

Then the connection subtly put out by Sampson apparently dawned upon the
other. Somehow, through this girl, her father and cousin were to be
betrayed. I got that impression, though I could not tell how true it
was. Certainly, Wright's jealousy was his paramount emotion.

Sampson thrust me sidewise off the porch. "Go away," he ordered. He did
not look around to see if I came back. Quickly I leaped to my former
position. He confronted Wright. He was beyond the table where the gun
lay. They were close together. My moment had come. The game was
mine--and a ball of fire burst in my brain to race all over me.

"To hell with you!" burst out Wright incoherently. He was frenzied.
"I'll have her or nobody else will!"

"You never will," returned Sampson stridently. "So help me God, I'd
rather see her Ranger Steele's wife than yours!"

While Wright absorbed that shock Sampson leaned toward him, all of hate
and menace in his mien. They had forgotten the half-drunken cowboy.
"Wright, you made me what I am," continued Sampson. "I backed you,
protected you, finally I went in with you. Now it's ended. I quit you.
I'm done!" Their gray, passion-corded faces were still as stones.

"Gentlemen," I called in clear, high, far-reaching voice, the intonation
of authority, "you're both done!"

They wheeled to confront me, to see my leveled gun. "Don't move! Not a
muscle! Not a finger!" I warned. Sampson read what Wright had not the
mind to read. His face turned paler gray, to ashen.

"What d'ye mean?" yelled Wright fiercely, shrilly. It was not in him to
obey my command, to see impending death. All quivering and strung, yet
with perfect control, I raised my left hand to turn back a lapel of my
open vest. The silver shield flashed brightly.

"United States deputy marshal in service of Ranger Steele!"

Wright howled like a dog. With barbarous and insane fury, with sheer,
impotent folly, he swept a clawing hand for his gun. My shot broke his
action as it cut short his life. Before Wright even tottered, before he
loosed the gun, Sampson leaped behind him, clasped him with his left
arm, quick as lightning jerked the gun from both clutching fingers and
sheath. I shot at Sampson, then again, then a third time. All my bullets
sped into the upheld nodding Wright. Sampson had protected himself with
the body of the dead man. I had seen red flashes, puffs of smoke, had
heard quick reports. Something stung my left arm. Then a blow like wind,
light of sound yet shocking in impact, struck me, knocked me flat. The
hot rend of lead followed the blow. My heart seemed to explode, yet my
mind kept extraordinarily clear and rapid.

I raised myself, felt a post at my shoulder, leaned on it. I heard
Sampson work the action of Wright's gun. I heard the hammer click, fall
upon empty shells. He had used up all the loads in Wright's gun. I heard
him curse as a man cursed at defeat. I waited, cool and sure now, for
him to show his head or other vital part from behind his bolster. He
tried to lift the dead man, to edge him closer toward the table where
the gun lay. But, considering the peril of exposing himself, he found
the task beyond him. He bent, peering at me under Wright's arm.
Sampson's eyes were the eyes of a man who meant to kill me. There was
never any mistaking the strange and terrible light of eyes like those.

More than once I had a chance to aim at them, at the top of Sampson's
head, at a strip of his side. But I had only two shells left. I wanted
to make sure. Suddenly I remembered Morton and his man. Then I pealed
out a cry--hoarse, strange, yet far-reaching. It was answered by a
shout. Sampson heard it. It called forth all that was in the man. He
flung Wright's body off. But even as it dropped, before Sampson could
recover to leap as he surely intended for the gun, I covered him, called
piercingly to him. I could kill him there or as he moved. But one chance
I gave him.

"Don't jump for the gun! Don't! I'll kill you! I've got two shells left!
Sure as God, I'll kill you!"

He stood perhaps ten feet from the table where his gun lay. I saw him
calculating chances. He was game. He had the courage that forced me to
respect him. I just saw him measure the distance to that gun. He was
magnificent. He meant to do it. I would have to kill him.

"Sampson, listen!" I cried, very swiftly. "The game's up! You're done!
But think of your daughter! I'll spare your life, I'll give you freedom
on one condition. For her sake! I've got you nailed--all the proofs.
It was I behind the wall the other night. Blome, Hilliard, Pickens, Bo
Snecker, are dead. I killed Bo Snecker on the way up here. There lies
Wright. You're alone. And here comes Morton and his men to my aid.

"Give up! Surrender! Consent to demands and I'll spare you. You can go
free back to your old country. It's for Diane's sake! Her life, perhaps
her happiness, can be saved! Hurry, man! Your answer!"

"Suppose I refuse?" he queried, with a dark and terrible earnestness.

"Then I'll kill you in your tracks! You can't move a hand! Your word or
death! Hurry, Sampson! I can't last much longer. But I can kill you
before I drop. Be a man! For her sake! Quick! Another second now--By
God, I'll kill you!"

"All right, Russ! I give my word," he said, and deliberately walked to
the chair and fell into it, just as Morton came running up with his man.

"Put away your gun," I ordered them. "The game's up. Snecker and Wright
are dead. Sampson is my prisoner. He has my word he'll be protected.
It's for you to draw up papers with him. He'll divide all his property,
every last acre, every head of stock as you and Zimmer dictate. He gives
up all. Then he's free to leave the country, and he's never to return."




Chapter 14

THROUGH THE VALLEY


Sampson looked strangely at the great bloody blot on my breast and his
look made me conscious of a dark hurrying of my mind. Morton came
stamping up the steps with blunt queries, with anxious mien. When he saw
the front of me he halted, threw wide his arms.

"There come the girls!" suddenly exclaimed Sampson. "Morton, help me
drag Wright inside. They mustn't see him."

I was facing down the porch toward the court and corrals. Miss Sampson
and Sally had come in sight, were swiftly approaching, evidently
alarmed. Steele, no doubt, had remained out at the camp. I was watching
them, wondering what they would do and say presently, and then Sampson
and Johnson came to carry me indoors. They laid me on the couch in the
parlor where the girls used to be so often.

"Russ, you're pretty hard hit," said Sampson, bending over me, with his
hands at my breast. The room was bright with sunshine, yet the light
seemed to be fading.

"Reckon I am," I replied.

"I'm sorry. If only you could have told me sooner! Wright, damn him!
Always I've split over him!"

"But the last time, Sampson."

"Yes, and I came near driving you to kill me, too. Russ, you talked me
out of it. For Diane's sake! She'll be in here in a minute. This'll be
harder than facing a gun."

"Hard now. But it'll--turn out--O.K."

"Russ, will you do me a favor?" he asked, and he seemed shamefaced.

"Sure."

"Let Diane and Sally think Wright shot you. He's dead. It can't matter.
And you're hard hit. The girls are fond of you. If--if you go
under--Russ, the old side of my life is coming back. It's _been_ coming.
It'll be here just about when she enters this room. And by God, I'd
change places with you if I could."

"Glad you--said that, Sampson," I replied. "And sure--Wright plugged me.
It's our secret. I've a reason, too, not--that--it--matters--much--now."

The light was fading. I could not talk very well. I felt dumb, strange,
locked in ice, with dull little prickings of my flesh, with dim rushing
sounds in my ears. But my mind was clear. Evidently there was little to
be done. Morton came in, looked at me, and went out. I heard the quick,
light steps of the girls on the porch, and murmuring voices.

"Where'm I hit?" I whispered.

"Three places. Arm, shoulder, and a bad one in the breast. It got your
lung, I'm afraid. But if you don't go quick, you've a chance."

"Sure I've a chance."

"Russ, I'll tell the girls, do what I can for you, then settle with
Morton and clear out."

Just then Diane and Sally entered the room. I heard two low cries, so
different in tone, and I saw two dim white faces. Sally flew to my side
and dropped to her knees. Both hands went to my face, then to my breast.
She lifted them, shaking. They were red. White and mute she gazed from
them to me. But some woman's intuition kept her from fainting.

"Papa!" cried Diane, wringing her hands.

"Don't give way," he replied. "Both you girls will need your nerve. Russ
is badly hurt. There's little hope for him."

Sally moaned and dropped her face against me, clasping me convulsively.
I tried to reach a hand out to touch her, but I could not move. I felt
her hair against my face. Diane uttered a low heart-rending cry, which
both Sampson and I understood.

"Listen, let me tell it quick," he said huskily. "There's been a fight.
Russ killed Snecker and Wright. They resisted arrest. It--it was
Wright--it was Wright's gun that put Russ down. Russ let me off. In
fact, Diane, he saved me. I'm to divide my property--return so far as
possible what I've stolen--leave Texas at once and forever. You'll find
me back in old Louisiana--if--if you ever want to come home."

As she stood there, realizing her deliverance, with the dark and tragic
glory of her eyes passing from her father to me, my own sight shadowed,
and I thought if I were dying then, it was not in vain.

"Send--for--Steele," I whispered.

Silently, swiftly, breathlessly they worked over me. I was exquisitely
sensitive to touch, to sound, but I could not see anything. By and by
all was quiet, and I slipped into a black void. Familiar heavy swift
footsteps, the thump of heels of a powerful and striding man, jarred
into the blackness that held me, seemed to split it to let me out; and I
opened my eyes in a sunlit room to see Sally's face all lined and
haggard, to see Miss Sampson fly to the door, and the stalwart Ranger
bow his lofty head to enter. However far life had ebbed from me, then it
came rushing back, keen-sighted, memorable, with agonizing pain in every
nerve. I saw him start, I heard him cry, but I could not speak. He bent
over me and I tried to smile. He stood silent, his hand on me, while
Diane Sampson told swiftly, brokenly, what had happened.

How she told it! I tried to whisper a protest. To any one on earth
except Steele I might have wished to appear a hero. Still, at that
moment I had more dread of him than any other feeling. She finished the
story with her head on his shoulder, with tears that certainly were in
part for me. Once in my life, then, I saw him stunned. But when he
recovered it was not Diane that he thought of first, nor of the end of
Sampson's power. He turned to me.

"Little hope?" he cried out, with the deep ring in his voice. "No!
There's every hope. No bullet hole like that could ever kill this
Ranger. Russ!"

I could not answer him. But this time I did achieve a smile. There was
no shadow, no pain in his face such as had haunted me in Sally's and
Diane's. He could fight death the same as he could fight evil. He
vitalized the girls. Diane began to hope; Sally lost her woe. He changed
the atmosphere of that room. Something filled it, something like
himself, big, virile, strong. The very look of him made me suddenly want
to live; and all at once it seemed I felt alive. And that was like
taking the deadened ends of nerves to cut them raw and quicken them with
fiery current.

From stupor I had leaped to pain, and that tossed me into fever. There
were spaces darkened, mercifully shutting me in; there were others of
light, where I burned and burned in my heated blood. Sally, like the
wraith she had become in my mind, passed in and out; Diane watched and
helped in those hours when sight was clear. But always the Ranger was
with me. Sometimes I seemed to feel his spirit grappling with mine,
drawing me back from the verge. Sometimes, in strange dreams, I saw him
there between me and a dark, cold, sinister shape.

The fever passed, and with the first nourishing drink given me I seemed
to find my tongue, to gain something.

"Hello, old man," I whispered to Steele.

"Oh, Lord, Russ, to think you would double-cross me the way you did!"

That was his first speech to me after I had appeared to face round from
the grave. His good-humored reproach told me more than any other thing
how far from his mind was thought of death for me. Then he talked a
little to me, cheerfully, with that directness and force characteristic
of him always, showing me that the danger was past, and that I would now
be rapidly on the mend. I discovered that I cared little whether I was
on the mend or not. When I had passed the state of somber unrealities
and then the hours of pain and then that first inspiring flush of
renewed desire to live, an entirely different mood came over me. But I
kept it to myself. I never even asked why, for three days, Sally never
entered the room where I lay. I associated this fact, however, with what
I had imagined her shrinking from me, her intent and pale face, her
singular manner when occasion made it necessary or unavoidable for her
to be near me.

No difficulty was there in associating my change of mood with her
absence. I brooded. Steele's keen insight betrayed me to him, but all
his power and his spirit availed nothing to cheer me. I pretended to be
cheerful; I drank and ate anything given me; I was patient and quiet.
But I ceased to mend.

Then, one day she came back, and Steele, who was watching me as she
entered, quietly got up and without a word took Diane out of the room
and left me alone with Sally.

"Russ, I've been sick myself--in bed for three days," she said. "I'm
better now. I hope you are. You look so pale. Do you still think, brood
about that fight?"

"Yes, I can't forget. I'm afraid it cost me more than life."

Sally was somber, bloomy, thoughtful. "You weren't driven to kill
George?" she asked.

"How do you mean?"

"By that awful instinct, that hankering to kill, you once told me these
gunmen had."

"No, I can swear it wasn't that. I didn't want to kill him. But he
forced me. As I had to go after these two men it was a foregone
conclusion about Wright. It was premeditated. I have no excuse."

"Hush--Tell me, if you confronted them, drew on them, then you had a
chance to kill my uncle?"

"Yes. I could have done it easily."

"Why, then, didn't you?"

"It was for Diane's sake. I'm afraid I didn't think of you. I had put
you out of my mind."

"Well, if a man can be noble at the same time he's terrible, you've
been, Russ--I don't know how I feel. I'm sick and I can't think. I see,
though, what you saved Diane and Steele. Why, she's touching happiness
again, fearfully, yet really. Think of that! God only knows what you did
for Steele. If I judged it by his suffering as you lay there about to
die it would be beyond words to tell. But, Russ, you're pale and shaky
now. Hush! No more talk!"

With all my eyes and mind and heart and soul I watched to see if she
shrank from me. She was passive, yet tender as she smoothed my pillow
and moved my head. A dark abstraction hung over her, and it was so
strange, so foreign to her nature. No sensitiveness on earth could have
equaled mine at that moment. And I saw and felt and knew that she did
not shrink from me. Thought and feeling escaped me for a while. I dozed.
The old shadows floated to and fro.

When I awoke Steele and Diane had just come in. As he bent over me I
looked up into his keen gray eyes and there was no mask on my own as I
looked up to him.

"Son, the thing that was needed was a change of nurses," he said gently.
"I intend to make up some sleep now and leave you in better care."

From that hour I improved. I slept, I lay quietly awake, I partook of
nourishing food. I listened and watched, and all the time I gained. But
I spoke very little, and though I tried to brighten when Steele was in
the room I made only indifferent success of it. Days passed. Sally was
almost always with me, yet seldom alone. She was grave where once she
had been gay. How I watched her face, praying for that shade to lift!
How I listened for a note of the old music in her voice! Sally Langdon
had sustained a shock to her soul almost as dangerous as had been the
blow at my life. Still I hoped. I had seen other women's deadened and
darkened spirits rebound and glow once more. It began to dawn upon me,
however, that more than time was imperative if she were ever to become
her old self again.

Studying her closer, with less thought of myself and her reaction to my
presence, I discovered that she trembled at shadows, seemed like a
frightened deer with a step always on its trail, was afraid of the dark.
Then I wondered why I had not long before divined one cause of her
strangeness. The house where I had killed one of her kin would ever be
haunted for her. She had said she was a Southerner and that blood was
thick. When I had thought out the matter a little further, I
deliberately sat up in bed, scaring the wits out of all my kind nurses.

"Steele, I'll never get well in this house. I want to go home. When can
you take me?"

They remonstrated with me and pleaded and scolded, all to little avail.
Then they were persuaded to take me seriously, to plan, providing I
improved, to start in a few days. We were to ride out of Pecos County
together, back along the stage trail to civilization. The look in
Sally's eyes decided my measure of improvement. I could have started
that very day and have borne up under any pain or distress. Strange to
see, too, how Steele and Diane responded to the stimulus of my idea, to
the promise of what lay beyond the wild and barren hills!

He told me that day about the headlong flight of every lawless character
out of Linrock, the very hour that Snecker and Wright and Sampson were
known to have fallen. Steele expressed deep feeling, almost
mortification, that the credit of that final coup had gone to him,
instead of me. His denial and explanation had been only a few soundless
words in the face of a grateful and clamorous populace that tried to
reward him, to make him mayor of Linrock. Sampson had made restitution
in every case where he had personally gained at the loss of farmer or
rancher; and the accumulation of years went far toward returning to
Linrock what it had lost in a material way. He had been a poor man when
he boarded the stage for Sanderson, on his way out of Texas forever.

Not long afterward I heard Steele talking to Miss Sampson, in a deep and
agitated voice. "You must rise above this. When I come upon you alone I
see the shadow, the pain in your face. How wonderfully this thing has
turned out when it might have ruined you! I expected it to ruin you.
Who, but that wild boy in there could have saved us all? Diane, you have
had cause for sorrow. But your father is alive and will live it down.
Perhaps, back there in Louisiana, the dishonor will never be known.
Pecos County is far from your old home. And even in San Antonio and
Austin, a man's evil repute means little.

"Then the line between a rustler and a rancher is hard to draw in these
wild border days. Rustling is stealing cattle, and I once heard a
well-known rancher say that all rich cattlemen had done a little
stealing. Your father drifted out here, and like a good many others, he
succeeded. It's perhaps just as well not to split hairs, to judge him by
the law and morality of a civilized country. Some way or other he
drifted in with bad men. Maybe a deal that was honest somehow tied his
hands and started him in wrong.

"This matter of land, water, a few stray head of stock had to be decided
out of court. I'm sure in his case he never realized where he was
drifting. Then one thing led to another, until he was face to face with
dealing that took on crooked form. To protect himself he bound men to
him. And so the gang developed. Many powerful gangs have developed that
way out here. He could not control them. He became involved with them.

"And eventually their dealings became deliberately and boldly dishonest.
That meant the inevitable spilling of blood sooner or later, and so he
grew into the leader because he was the strongest. Whatever he is to be
judged for I think he could have been infinitely worse."

When he ceased speaking I had the same impulse that must have governed
Steele--somehow to show Sampson not so black as he was painted, to give
him the benefit of a doubt, to arraign him justly in the eyes of Rangers
who knew what wild border life was.

"Steele, bring Diane in!" I called. "I've something to tell her." They
came quickly, concerned probably at my tone. "I've been hoping for a
chance to tell you something, Miss Sampson. That day I came here your
father was quarreling with Wright. I had heard them do that before. He
hated Wright. The reason came out just before we had the fight. It was
my plan to surprise them. I did. I told them you went out to meet
Steele--that you two were in love with each other. Wright grew wild. He
swore no one would ever have you. Then Sampson said he'd rather have you
Steele's wife than Wright's.

"I'll not forget that scene. There was a great deal back of it, long
before you ever came out to Linrock. Your father said that he had backed
Wright, that the deal had ruined him, made him a rustler. He said he
quit; he was done. Now, this is all clear to me, and I want to explain,
Miss Sampson. It was Wright who ruined your father. It was Wright who
was the rustler. It was Wright who made the gang necessary. But Wright
had not the brains or the power to lead men. Because blood is thick,
your father became the leader of that gang. At heart he was never a
criminal.

"The reason I respected him was because he showed himself a man at the
last. He faced me to be shot, and I couldn't do it. As Steele said,
you've reason for sorrow. But you must get over it. You mustn't brood. I
do not see that you'll be disgraced or dishonored. Of course, that's not
the point. The vital thing is whether or not a woman of your
high-mindedness had real and lasting cause for shame. Steele says no. I
say no."

Then, as Miss Sampson dropped down beside me, her eyes shining and wet,
Sally entered the room in time to see her cousin bend to kiss me
gratefully with sisterly fervor. Yet it was a woman's kiss, given for
its own sake. Sally could not comprehend; it was too sudden, too
unheard-of, that Diane Sampson should kiss me, the man she did not love.
Sally's white, sad face changed, and in the flaming wave of scarlet that
dyed neck and cheek and brow I read with mighty pound of heart that,
despite the dark stain between us, she loved me still.




Chapter 15

CONVALESCENCE


Four mornings later we were aboard the stage, riding down the main
street, on the way out of Linrock. The whole town turned out to bid us
farewell. The cheering, the clamor, the almost passionate fervor of the
populace irritated me, and I could not see the incident from their point
of view. Never in my life had I been so eager to get out of a place. But
then I was morbid, and the whole world hinged on one thing. Morton
insisted on giving us an escort as far as Del Rio. It consisted of six
cowboys, mounted, with light packs, and they rode ahead of the stage.

We had the huge vehicle to ourselves. A comfortable bed had been rigged
up for me by placing boards across from seat to seat, and furnishing it
with blankets and pillows. By some squeezing there was still room enough
inside for my three companions; but Steele expressed an intention of
riding mostly outside, and Miss Sampson's expression betrayed her. I was
to be alone with Sally. The prospect thrilled while it saddened me. How
different this ride from that first one, with all its promise of
adventure and charm!

"It's over!" said Steele thickly. "It's done! I'm glad, for their
sakes--glad for ours. We're out of town."

I had been quick to miss the shouts and cheers. And I had been just as
quick to see, or to imagine, a subtle change in Sally Langdon's face. We
had not traveled a mile before the tension relaxed about her lips, the
downcast eyelids lifted, and I saw, beyond any peradventure of doubt, a
lighter spirit. Then I relaxed myself, for I had keyed up every nerve to
make myself strong for this undertaking. I lay back with closed eyes,
weary, aching, in more pain than I wanted them to discover. And I
thought and thought.

Miss Sampson had said to me: "Russ, it'll all come right. I can tell you
now what you never guessed. For years Sally had been fond of our cousin,
George Wright. She hadn't seen him since she was a child. But she
remembered. She had an only brother who was the image of George. Sally
devotedly loved Arthur. He was killed in the Rebellion. She never got
over it. That left her without any family. George and I were her nearest
kin.

"How she looked forward to meeting George out here! But he disappointed
her right at the start. She hates a drinking man. I think she came to
hate George, too. But he always reminded her of Arthur, and she could
never get over that. So, naturally, when you killed George she was
terribly shocked. There were nights when she was haunted, when I had to
stay with her. Vaughn and I have studied her, talked about her, and we
think she's gradually recovering. She loved you, too; and Sally doesn't
change. Once with her is for always. So let me say to you what you said
to me--do not brood. All will yet be well, thank God!"

Those had been words to remember, to make me patient, to lessen my
insistent fear. Yet, what did I know of women? Had not Diane Sampson and
Sally Langdon amazed and nonplused me many a time, at the very moment
when I had calculated to a nicety my conviction of their action, their
feeling? It was possible that I had killed Sally's love for me, though I
could not believe so; but it was very possible that, still loving me,
she might never break down the barrier between us. The beginning of
that journey distressed me physically; yet, gradually, as I grew
accustomed to the roll of the stage and to occasional jars, I found
myself easier in body. Fortunately there had been rain, which settled
the dust; and a favorable breeze made riding pleasant, where ordinarily
it would have been hot and disagreeable.

We tarried long enough in the little hamlet of Sampson for Steele to get
letters from reliable ranchers. He wanted a number of references to
verify the Ranger report he had to turn in to Captain Neal. This
precaution he took so as to place in Neal's hands all the evidence
needed to convince Governor Smith. And now, as Steele returned to us and
entered the stage, he spoke of this report. "It's the longest and the
best I ever turned in," he said, with a gray flame in his eyes. "I
shan't let Russ read it. He's peevish because I want his part put on
record. And listen, Diane. There's to be a blank line in this report.
Your father's name will never be recorded. Neither the Governor, nor the
adjutant-general, nor Captain Neal, nor any one back Austin way will
ever know who this mysterious leader of the Pecos gang might have been.

"Even out here very few know. Many supposed, but few knew. I've shut the
mouths of those few. That blank line in the report is for a supposed and
mysterious leader who vanished. Jack Blome, the reputed leader, and all
his lawless associates are dead. Linrock is free and safe now, its
future in the hands of roused, determined, and capable men."

We were all silent after Steele ceased talking. I did not believe Diane
could have spoken just then. If sorrow and joy could be perfectly
blended in one beautiful expression, they were in her face. By and by I
dared to say: "And Vaughn Steele, Lone Star Ranger, has seen his last
service!"

"Yes," he replied with emotion.

Sally stirred and turned a strange look upon us all. "In that case,
then, if I am not mistaken, there were two Lone Star Rangers--and both
have seen their last service!" Sally's lips were trembling, the way they
trembled when it was impossible to tell whether she was about to laugh
or cry. The first hint of her old combative spirit or her old archness!
A wave of feeling rushed over me, too much for me in my weakened
condition. Dizzy, racked with sudden shooting pains, I closed my eyes;
and the happiness I embraced was all the sweeter for the suffering it
entailed. Something beat into my ears, into my brain, with the
regularity and rapid beat of pulsing blood--not too late! Not too late!

From that moment the ride grew different, even as I improved with leaps
and bounds. Sanderson behind us, the long gray barren between Sanderson
and the Rio Grande behind us, Del Rio for two days, where I was able to
sit up, all behind us--and the eastward trail to Uvalde before us! We
were the only passengers on the stage from Del Rio to Uvalde. Perhaps
Steele had so managed the journey. Assuredly he had become an individual
with whom traveling under the curious gaze of strangers would have been
embarrassing. He was most desperately in love. And Diane, all in a few
days, while riding these long, tedious miles, ordinarily so fatiguing,
had renewed her bloom, had gained what she had lost. She, too, was
desperately in love, though she remembered her identity occasionally,
and that she was in the company of a badly shot-up young man and a
broken-hearted cousin.

Most of the time Diane and Steele rode on top of the stage. When they
did ride inside their conduct was not unbecoming; indeed, it was sweet
to watch; yet it loosed the fires of jealous rage and longing in me; and
certainly had some remarkable effect upon Sally. Gradually she had been
losing that strange and somber mood she had acquired, to brighten and
change more and more. Perhaps she divined something about Diane and
Steele that escaped me. Anyway, all of a sudden she was transformed.
"Look here, if you people want to spoon, please get out on top," she
said.

If that was not the old Sally Langdon I did not know who it was. Miss
Sampson tried to appear offended, and Steele tried to look insulted, but
they both failed. They could not have looked anything but happy. Youth
and love were too strong for this couple, whom circumstances might well
have made grave and thoughtful. They were magnet and steel, powder and
spark. Any moment, right before my eyes, I expected them to rush right
into each other's arms. And when they refrained, merely substituting
clasped hands for a dearer embrace, I closed my eyes and remembered
them, as they would live in my memory forever, standing crushed together
on the ridge that day, white lips to white lips, embodying all that was
beautiful, passionate and tragic.

And I, who had been their undoing, in the end was their salvation. How I
hugged that truth to my heart!

It seemed, following Sally's pert remark, that after an interval of
decent dignity, Diane and Steele did go out upon the top of the stage.
"Russ," whispered Sally, "they're up to something. I heard a few words.
I bet you they're going to get married in San Antonio."

"Well, it's about time," I replied.

"But oughtn't they take us into their confidence?"

"Sally, they have forgotten we are upon the earth."

"Oh, I'm so glad they're happy!"

Then there was a long silence. It was better for me to ride lying down,
in which position I was at this time. After a mile Sally took my hand
and held it without speaking. My heart leaped, but I did not open my
eyes or break that spell even with a whisper. "Russ, I must say--tell
you--"

She faltered, and still I kept my eyes closed. I did not want to wake up
from that dream. "Have I been very--very sad?" she went on.

"Sad and strange, Sally. That was worse than my bullet-holes." She
gripped my hand. I felt her hair on my brow, felt her breath on my
cheek.

"Russ, I swore--I'd hate you if you--if you--"

"I know. Don't speak of it," I interposed hurriedly.

"But I don't hate you. I--I love you. And I can't give you up!"

"Darling! But, Sally, can you get over it--can you forget?"

"Yes. That horrid black spell had gone with the miles. Little by little,
mile after mile, and now it's gone! But I had to come to the point. To
go back on my word! To tell you. Russ, you never, _never_ had any
sense!"

Then I opened my eyes and my arms, too, and we were reunited. It must
have been a happy moment, so happy that it numbed me beyond
appreciation. "Yes, Sally," I agreed; "but no man ever had such a
wonderful girl."

"Russ, I never--took off your ring," she whispered.

"But you hid your hand from my sight," I replied quickly.

"Oh dear Russ, we're crazy--as crazy as those lunatics outside. Let's
think a little."

I was very content to have no thought at all, just to see and feel her
close to me.

"Russ, will you give up the Ranger Service for me?" she asked.

"Indeed I will."

"And leave this fighting Texas, never to return till the day of guns and
Rangers and bad men and even-breaks is past?"

"Yes."

"Will you go with me to my old home? It was beautiful once, Russ, before
it was let run to rack and ruin. A thousand acres. An old stone house.
Great mossy oaks. A lake and river. There are bear, deer, panther, wild
boars in the breaks. You can hunt. And ride! I've horses, Russ, such
horses! They could run these scrubby broncos off their legs. Will you
come?"

"Come! Sally, I rather think I will. But, dearest, after I'm well again
I must work," I said earnestly. "I've got to have a job."

"You're indeed a poor cowboy out of a job! Remember your deceit. Oh,
Russ! Well, you'll have work, never fear."

"Sally, is this old home of yours near the one Diane speaks of so much?"
I asked.

"Indeed it is. But hers has been kept under cultivation and in repair,
while mine has run down. That will be our work, to build it up. So it's
settled then?"

"Almost. There are certain--er--formalities--needful in a compact of
this kind." She looked inquiringly at me, with a soft flush. "Well, if
you are so dense, try to bring back that Sally Langdon who used to
torment me. How you broke your promises! How you leaned from your
saddle! Kiss me, Sally!"

Later, as we drew close to Uvalde, Sally and I sat in one seat, after
the manner of Diane and Vaughn, and we looked out over the west where
the sun was setting behind dim and distant mountains. We were fast
leaving the wild and barren border. Already it seemed far beyond that
broken rugged horizon with its dark line silhouetted against the rosy
and golden sky. Already the spell of its wild life and the grim and
haunting faces had begun to fade out of my memory. Let newer Rangers,
with less to lose, and with the call in their hearts, go on with our
work 'till soon that wild border would be safe!

The great Lone Star State must work out its destiny. Some distant day,
in the fulness of time, what place the Rangers had in that destiny would
be history.





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