THE RUSTLERS OF PECOS COUNTY
By Zane Grey
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.
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.
"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.
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!"
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."
"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?"
"If they had the nerve?"
"Not thet so much."
"What then? What'd make them fight?"
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.