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 breakthat 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'llnot 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 Ihate 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, Isaw 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!"
* * *
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 itselfen 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 youwant 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?"
"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 knowwhen 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 tosay 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'tsatisfy 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.
* * *
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 hehas 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 whoknows ."
"But you have your suspicions?"
"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 bethe 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 aman'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!"
* * *
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."
"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 Iought 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 donot 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 knownow ! 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.
* * *
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.
"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.
"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!"
* * *