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CLEANING OUT LINROCK
Not much sleep visited me that night. In the morning, the young ladies not stirring and no prospects of duty for me, I rode down to town.
Sight of the wide street, lined by its hitching posts and saddled horses, the square buildings with their ugly signs, unfinished yet old, the lounging, dust-gray men at every corner--these awoke in me a significance that had gone into oblivion overnight.
That last talk with Miss Sampson had unnerved me, wrought strangely upon me. And afterward, waking and dozing, I had dreamed, lived in a warm, golden place where there were music and flowers and Sally's spritelike form leading me on after two tall, beautiful lovers, Diane and Vaughn, walking hand in hand.
Fine employment of mind for a Ranger whose single glance down a quiet street pictured it with darkgarbed men in grim action, guns spouting red, horses plunging!
In front of Hoden's restaurant I dismounted and threw my bridle. Jim was unmistakably glad to see me.
"Where've you been? Morton was in an' powerful set on seein' you. I steered him from goin' up to Sampson's. What kind of a game was you givin' Frank?"
"Jim, I just wanted to see if he was a safe rancher to make a stock deal for me."
"He says you told him he didn't have no yellow streak an' that he was a rustler. Frank can't git over them two hunches. When he sees you he's goin' to swear he's no rustler, but he has got a yellow streak, unless..."
This little, broken-down Texan had eyes like flint striking fire.
"Unless?" I queried sharply.
Jim breathed a deep breath and looked around the room before his gaze fixed again on mine.
"Wal," he replied, speaking low, "Me and Frank allows you've picked the right men. It was me that sent them letters to the Ranger captain at Austin. Now who in hell are you?"
It was my turn to draw a deep breath.
I had taken six weeks to strike fire from a Texan whom I instinctively felt had been prey to the power that shadowed Linrock. There was no one in the room except us, no one passing, nor near.
Reaching into the inside pocket of my buckskin vest, I turned the lining out. A star-shaped, bright, silver object flashed as I shoved it, pocket and all, under Jim's hard eyes.
He could not help but read; United States Deputy Marshall.
"By golly," he whispered, cracking the table with his fist. "Russ, you sure rung true to me. But never as a cowboy!"
"Jim, the woods is full of us!"
Heavy footsteps sounded on the walk. Presently Steele's bulk darkened the door.
"Hello," I greeted. "Steele, shake hands with Jim Hoden."
"Hello," replied Steele slowly. "Say, I reckon I know Hoden."
"Nit. Not this one. He's the old Hoden. He used to own the Hope So saloon. It was on the square when he ran it. Maybe he'll get it back pretty soon. Hope so!"
I laughed at my execrable pun. Steele leaned against the counter, his gray glance studying the man I had so oddly introduced.
Hoden in one flash associated the Ranger with me--a relation he had not dreamed of. Then, whether from shock or hope or fear I know not, he appeared about to faint.
"Hoden, do you know who's boss of this secret gang of rustlers hereabouts?" asked Steele bluntly.
It was characteristic of him to come sharp to the point. His voice, something deep, easy, cool about him, seemed to steady Hoden.
"No," replied Hoden.
"Does anybody know?" went on Steele.
"Wal, I reckon there's not one honest native of Pecos who knows."
"But you have your suspicions?"
"You can keep your suspicions to yourself. But you can give me your idea about this crowd that hangs round the saloons, the regulars."
"Jest a bad lot," replied Hoden, with the quick assurance of knowledge. "Most of them have been here years. Others have drifted in. Some of them work odd times. They rustle a few steer, steal, rob, anythin' for a little money to drink an' gamble. Jest a bad lot!
"But the strangers as are always comin' an' goin'--strangers that never git acquainted--some of them are likely to be the rustlers. Bill an' Bo Snecker are in town now. Bill's a known cattle-thief. Bo's no good, the makin' of a gun-fighter. He heads thet way.
"They might be rustlers. But the boy, he's hardly careful enough for this gang. Then there's Jack Blome. He comes to town often. He lives up in the hills. He always has three or four strangers with him. Blome's the fancy gun fighter. He shot a gambler here last fall. Then he was in a fight in Sanderson lately. Got two cowboys then.
"Blome's killed a dozen Pecos men. He's a rustler, too, but I reckon he's not the brains of thet secret outfit, if he's in it at all."
Steele appeared pleased with Hoden's idea. Probably it coincided with the one he had arrived at himself.
"Now, I'm puzzled over this," said Steele. "Why do men, apparently honest men, seem to be so close-mouthed here? Is that a fact or only my impression?"
"It's sure a fact," replied Hoden darkly. "Men have lost cattle an' property in Linrock--lost them honestly or otherwise, as hasn't been proved. An' in some cases when they talked--hinted a little--they was found dead. Apparently held up an' robbed. But dead. Dead men don't talk. Thet's why we're close-mouthed."
Steele's face wore a dark, somber sternness.
Rustling cattle was not intolerable. Western Texas had gone on prospering, growing in spite of the horde of rustlers ranging its vast stretches; but this cold, secret, murderous hold on a little struggling community was something too strange, too terrible for men to stand long.
It had waited for a leader like Steele, and now it could not last. Hoden's revived spirit showed that.
The ranger was about to speak again when the clatter of hoofs interrupted him. Horses halted out in front.
A motion of Steele's hand caused me to dive through a curtained door back of Hoden's counter. I turned to peep out and was in time to see George Wright enter with the red-headed cowboy called Brick.
That was the first time I had ever seen Wright come into Hoden's. He called for tobacco.
If his visit surprised Jim he did not show any evidence. But Wright showed astonishment as he saw the Ranger, and then a dark glint flitted from the eyes that shifted from Steele to Hoden and back again.
Steele leaned easily against the counter, and he said good morning pleasantly. Wright deigned no reply, although he bent a curious and hard scrutiny upon Steele. In fact, Wright evinced nothing that would lead one to think he had any respect for Steele as a man or as a Ranger.
"Steele, that was the second break of yours last night," he said finally. "If you come fooling round the ranch again there'll be hell!"
It seemed strange that a man who had lived west of the Pecos for ten years could not see in Steele something which forbade that kind of talk.
It certainly was not nerve Wright showed; men of courage were seldom intolerant; and with the matchless nerve that characterized Steele or the great gunmen of the day there went a cool, unobtrusive manner, a speech brief, almost gentle, certainly courteous. Wright was a hot-headed Louisianian of French extraction; a man evidently who had never been crossed in anything, and who was strong, brutal, passionate, which qualities, in the face of a situation like this, made him simply a fool!
The way Steele looked at Wright was joy to me. I hated this smooth, dark-skinned Southerner. But, of course, an ordinary affront like Wright's only earned silence from Steele.
"I'm thinking you used your Ranger bluff just to get near Diane Sampson," Wright sneered. "Mind you, if you come up there again there'll be hell!"
"You're damn right there'll be hell!" retorted Steele, a kind of high ring in his voice. I saw thick, dark red creep into his face.
Had Wright's incomprehensible mention of Diane Sampson been an instinct of love--of jealousy? Verily, it had pierced into the depths of the Ranger, probably as no other thrust could have.
"Diane Sampson wouldn't stoop to know a dirty blood-tracker like you," said Wright hotly. His was not a deliberate intention to rouse Steele; the man was simply rancorous. "I'll call you right, you cheap bluffer! You four-flush! You damned interfering conceited Ranger!"
Long before Wright ended his tirade Steele's face had lost the tinge of color, so foreign to it in moments like this; and the cool shade, the steady eyes like ice on fire, the ruthless lips had warned me, if they had not Wright.
"Wright, I'll not take offense, because you seem to be championing your beautiful cousin," replied Steele in slow speech, biting. "But let me return your compliment. You're a fine Southerner! Why, you're only a cheap four-flush--damned bull-headed--rustler"
Steele hissed the last word. Then for him--for me--for Hoden--there was the truth in Wright's working passion-blackened face.
Wright jerked, moved, meant to draw. But how slow! Steele lunged forward. His long arm swept up.
And Wright staggered backward, knocking table and chairs, to fall hard, in a half-sitting posture, against the wall.
"Don't draw!" warned Steele.
"Wright, get away from your gun!" yelled the cowboy Brick.
But Wright was crazed by fury. He tugged at his hip, his face corded with purple welts, malignant, murderous, while he got to his feet.
I was about to leap through the door when Steele shot. Wright's gun went ringing to the floor.
Like a beast in pain Wright screamed. Frantically he waved a limp arm, flinging blood over the white table-cloths. Steele had crippled him.
"Here, you cowboy," ordered Steele; "take him out, quick!"
Brick saw the need of expediency, if Wright did not realize it, and he pulled the raving man out of the place. He hurried Wright down the street, leaving the horses behind.
Steele calmly sheathed his gun.
"Well, I guess that opens the ball," he said as I came out.
Hoden seemed fascinated by the spots of blood on the table-cloths. It was horrible to see him rubbing his hands there like a ghoul!
"I tell you what, fellows," said Steele, "we've just had a few pleasant moments with the man who has made it healthy to keep close-mouthed in Linrock."
Hoden lifted his shaking hands.
"What'd you wing him for?" he wailed. "He was drawin' on you. Shootin' arms off men like him won't do out here."
I was inclined to agree with Hoden.
"That bull-headed fool will roar and butt himself with all his gang right into our hands. He's just the man I've needed to meet. Besides, shooting him would have been murder for me!"
"Murder!" exclaimed Hoden.
"He was a fool, and slow at that. Under such circumstances could I kill him when I didn't have to?"
"Sure it'd been the trick." declared Jim positively. "I'm not allowin' for whether he's really a rustler or not. It just won't do, because these fellers out here ain't goin' to be afraid of you."
"See here, Hoden. If a man's going to be afraid of me at all, that trick will make him more afraid of me. I know it. It works out. When Wright cools down he'll remember, he'll begin to think, he'll realize that I could more easily have killed him than risk a snapshot at his arm. I'll bet you he goes pale to the gills next time he even sees me."
"That may be true, Steele. But if Wright's the man you think he is he'll begin that secret underground bizness. It's been tolerable healthy these last six months. You can gamble on this. If thet secret work does commence you'll have more reason to suspect Wright. I won't feel very safe from now on.
"I heard you call him rustler. He knows thet. Why, Wright won't sleep at night now. He an' Sampson have always been after me."
"Hoden, what are your eyes for?" demanded Steele. "Watch out. And now here. See your friend Morton. Tell him this game grows hot. Together you approach four or five men you know well and can absolutely trust.
"Hello, there's somebody coming. You meet Russ and me to-night, out in the open a quarter of a mile, straight from the end of this street. You'll find a pile of stones. Meet us there to-night at ten o'clock."
The next few days, for the several hours each day that I was in town, I had Steele in sight all the time or knew that he was safe under cover.
Nothing happened. His presence in the saloons or any place where men congregated was marked by a certain uneasy watchfulness on the part of almost everybody, and some amusement on the part of a few.
It was natural to suppose that the lawless element would rise up in a mass and slay Steele on sight. But this sort of thing never happened. It was not so much that these enemies of the law awaited his next move, but just a slowness peculiar to the frontier.
The ranger was in their midst. He was interesting, if formidable. He would have been welcomed at card tables, at the bars, to play and drink with the men who knew they were under suspicion.
There was a rude kind of good humor even in their open hostility.
Besides, one Ranger, or a company of Rangers could not have held the undivided attention of these men from their games and drinks and quarrels except by some decided move. Excitement, greed, appetite were rife in them.
I marked, however, a striking exception to the usual run of strangers I had been in the habit of seeing. The Sneckers had gone or were under cover. Again I caught a vague rumor of the coming of Jack Blome, yet he never seemed to arrive.
Moreover, the goings-on among the habitues of the resorts and the cowboys who came in to drink and gamble were unusually mild in comparison with former conduct.
This lull, however, did not deceive Steele and me. It could not last. The wonder was that it had lasted so long.
There was, of course, no post office in Linrock. A stage arrived twice a week from Sanderson, if it did not get held up on the way, and the driver usually had letters, which he turned over to the elderly keeper of a little store.
This man's name was Jones, and everybody liked him. On the evenings the stage arrived there was always a crowd at his store, which fact was a source of no little revenue to him.
One night, so we ascertained, after the crowd had dispersed, two thugs entered his store, beat the old man and robbed him. He made no complaint; however, when Steele called him he rather reluctantly gave not only descriptions of his assailants, but their names.
Steele straightaway went in search of the men and came across them in Lerett's place. I was around when it happened.
Steele strode up to a table which was surrounded by seven or eight men and he tapped Sim Bass on the shoulder.
"Get up, I want you," he said.
Bass looked up only to see who had accosted him.
"The hell you say!" he replied impudently.
Steele's big hand shifted to the fellow's collar. One jerk, seemingly no effort at all, sent Bass sliding, chair and all, to crash into the bar and fall in a heap. He lay there, wondering what had struck him.
"Miller, I want you. Get up," said Steele.
Miller complied with alacrity. A sharp kick put more life and understanding into Bass.
Then Steele searched these men right before the eyes of their comrades, took what money and weapons they had, and marched them out, followed by a crowd that gathered more and more to it as they went down the street. Steele took his prisoners into Jones' store, had them identified; returned the money they had stolen, and then, pushing the two through the gaping crowd, he marched them down to his stone jail and locked them up.
Obviously the serious side of this incident was entirely lost upon the highly entertained audience. Many and loud were the coarse jokes cracked at the expense of Bass and Miller and after the rude door had closed upon them similar remarks were addressed to Steele's jailer and guard, who in truth, were just as disreputable looking as their prisoners.
Then the crowd returned to their pastimes, leaving their erstwhile comrades to taste the sweets of prison life.
When I got a chance I asked Steele if he could rely on his hired hands, and with a twinkle in his eye which surprised me as much as his reply, he said Miller and Bass would have flown the coop before morning.
He was right. When I reached the lower end of town next morning, the same old crowd, enlarged by other curious men and youths, had come to pay their respects to the new institution.
Jailer and guard were on hand, loud in their proclamations and explanations. Naturally they had fallen asleep, as all other hard working citizens had, and while they slept the prisoners made a hole somewhere and escaped.
Steele examined the hole, and then engaged a stripling of a youth to see if he could crawl through. The youngster essayed the job, stuck in the middle, and was with difficulty extricated.
Whereupon the crowd evinced its delight.
Steele, without more ado, shoved his jailer and guard inside his jail, deliberately closed, barred and chained the iron bolted door, and put the key in his pocket. Then he remained there all day without giving heed to his prisoners' threats.
Toward evening, having gone without drink infinitely longer than was customary, they made appeals, to which Steele was deaf.
He left the jail, however, just before dark, and when we met he told me to be on hand to help him watch that night. We went around the outskirts of town, carrying two heavy double-barreled shotguns Steele had gotten somewhere and taking up a position behind bushes in the lot adjoining the jail; we awaited developments.
Steele was not above paying back these fellows.
All the early part of the evening, gangs of half a dozen men or more came down the street and had their last treat at the expense of the jail guard and jailer. These prisoners yelled for drink--not water but drink, and the more they yelled the more merriment was loosed upon the night air.
About ten o'clock the last gang left, to the despair of the hungry and thirsty prisoners.
Steele and I had hugely enjoyed the fun, and thought the best part of the joke for us was yet to come. The moon had arisen, and though somewhat hazed by clouds, had lightened the night. We were hidden about sixty paces from the jail, a little above it, and we had a fine command of the door.
About eleven o'clock, when all was still, we heard soft steps back of the jail, and soon two dark forms stole round in front. They laid down something that gave forth a metallic clink, like a crowbar. We heard whisperings and then, low, coarse laughs.
Then the rescuers, who undoubtedly were Miller and Bass, set to work to open the door. Softly they worked at first, but as that door had been put there to stay, and they were not fond of hard work, they began to swear and make noises.
Steele whispered to me to wait until the door had been opened, and then when all four presented a good target, to fire both barrels. We could easily have slipped down and captured the rescuers, but that was not Steele's game.
A trick met by a trick; cunning matching craft would be the surest of all ways to command respect.
Four times the workers had to rest, and once they were so enraged at the insistence of the prisoners, who wanted to delay proceedings to send one of them after a bottle, that they swore they would go away and cut the job altogether.
But they were prevailed upon to stay and attack the stout door once more. Finally it yielded, with enough noise to have awakened sleepers a block distant, and forth into the moonlight came rescuers and rescued with low, satisfied grunts of laughter.
Just then Steele and I each discharged both barrels, and the reports blended as one in a tremendous boom.
That little compact bunch disintegrated like quicksilver. Two stumbled over; the others leaped out, and all yelled in pain and terror. Then the fallen ones scrambled up and began to hobble and limp and jerk along after their comrades.
Before the four of them got out of sight they had ceased their yells, but were moving slowly, hanging on to one another in a way that satisfied us they would be lame for many a day.
Next morning at breakfast Dick regaled me with an elaborate story about how the Ranger had turned the tables on the jokers. Evidently in a night the whole town knew it.
Probably a desperate stand of Steele's even to the extreme of killing men, could not have educated these crude natives so quickly into the realization that the Ranger was not to be fooled with.
That morning I went for a ride with the girls, and both had heard something and wanted to know everything. I had become a news-carrier, and Miss Sampson never thought of questioning me in regard to my fund of information.
She showed more than curiosity. The account I gave of the jail affair amused her and made Sally laugh heartily.
Diane questioned me also about a rumor that had come to her concerning George Wright.
He had wounded himself with a gun, it seemed, and though not seriously injured, was not able to go about. He had not been up to the ranch for days.
"I asked papa about him," said, Diane, "and papa laughed like--well, like a regular hyena. I was dumbfounded. Papa's so queer. He looked thunder-clouds at me.
"When I insisted, for I wanted to know, he ripped out: 'Yes, the damn fool got himself shot, and I'm sorry it's not worse.'
"Now, Russ, what do you make of my dad? Cheerful and kind, isn't he?"
I laughed with Sally, but I disclaimed any knowledge of George's accident. I hated the thought of Wright, let alone anything concerning the fatal certainty that sooner or later these cousins of his were to suffer through him.
Sally did not make these rides easy for me, for she was sweeter than anything that has a name. Since the evening of the dance I had tried to avoid her. Either she was sincerely sorry for her tantrum or she was bent upon utterly destroying my peace.
I took good care we were never alone, for in that case, if she ever got into my arms again I would find the ground slipping from under me.
Despite, however, the wear and constant strain of resisting Sally, I enjoyed the ride. There was a charm about being with these girls.
Then perhaps Miss Sampson's growing unconscious curiosity in regard to Steele was no little satisfaction to me.
I pretended a reluctance to speak of the Ranger, but when I did it was to drop a subtle word or briefly tell of an action that suggested such.
I never again hinted the thing that had been such a shock to her. What was in her mind I could not guess; her curiosity, perhaps the greater part, was due to a generous nature not entirely satisfied with itself. She probably had not abandoned her father's estimate of the Ranger but absolute assurance that this was just did not abide with her. For the rest she was like any other girl, a worshipper of the lion in a man, a weaver of romance, ignorant of her own heart.
Not the least talked of and speculated upon of all the details of the jail incident was the part played by Storekeeper Jones, who had informed upon his assailants. Steele and I both awaited results of this significant fact.
When would the town wake up, not only to a little nerve, but to the usefulness of a Ranger?
Three days afterward Steele told me a woman accosted him on the street. She seemed a poor, hardworking person, plain spoken and honest.
Her husband did not drink enough to complain of, but he liked to gamble and he had been fleeced by a crooked game in Jack Martin's saloon. Other wives could make the same complaints. It was God's blessing for such women that Ranger Steele had come to Linrock.
Of course, he could not get back the lost money, but would it be possible to close Martin's place, or at least break up the crooked game?
Steele had asked this woman, whose name was Price, how much her husband had lost, and, being told, he assured her that if he found evidence of cheating, not only would he get back the money, but also he would shut up Martin's place.
Steele instructed me to go that night to the saloon in question and get in the game. I complied, and, in order not to be overcarefully sized up by the dealer, I pretended to be well under the influence of liquor.
By nine o'clock, when Steele strolled in, I had the game well studied, and a more flagrantly crooked one I had never sat in. It was barefaced robbery.
Steele and I had agreed upon a sign from me, because he was not so adept in the intricacies of gambling as I was. I was not in a hurry, however, for there was a little frecklefaced cattleman in the game, and he had been losing, too. He had sold a bunch of stock that day and had considerable money, which evidently he was to be deprived of before he got started for Del Rio.
Steele stood at our backs, and I could feel his presence. He thrilled me. He had some kind of effect on the others, especially the dealer, who was honest enough while the Ranger looked on.
When, however, Steele shifted his attention to other tables and players our dealer reverted to his crooked work. I was about to make a disturbance, when the little cattleman, leaning over, fire in his eye and gun in hand, made it for me.
Evidently he was a keener and nervier gambler than he had been taken for. There might have been gun-play right then if Steele had not interfered.
"Hold on!" he yelled, leaping for our table. "Put up your gun!"
"Who are you?" demanded the cattleman, never moving. "Better keep out of this."
"I'm Steele. Put up your gun."
"You're thet Ranger, hey?" replied the other. "All right! But just a minute. I want this dealer to sit quiet. I've been robbed. And I want my money back."
Certainly the dealer and everyone else round the table sat quiet while the cattleman coolly held his gun leveled.
"Crooked game?" asked Steele, bending over the table. "Show me."
It did not take the aggrieved gambler more than a moment to prove his assertion. Steele, however, desired corroboration from others beside the cattleman, and one by one he questioned them.
To my surprise, one of the players admitted his conviction that the game was not straight.
"What do you say?" demanded Steele of me.
"Worse'n a hold-up, Mr. Ranger," I burst out. "Let me show you."
Deftly I made the dealer's guilt plain to all, and then I seconded the cattleman's angry claim for lost money. The players from other tables gathered round, curious, muttering.
And just then Martin strolled in. His appearance was not prepossessing.
"What's this holler?" he asked, and halted as he saw the cattleman's gun still in line with the dealer.
"Martin, you know what it's for," replied Steele. "Take your dealer and dig--unless you want to see me clean out your place."
Sullen and fierce, Martin stood looking from Steele to the cattleman and then the dealer. Some men in the crowd muttered, and that was a signal for Steele to shove the circle apart and get out, back to the wall.
The cattleman rose slowly in the center, pulling another gun, and he certainly looked business to me.
"Wal, Ranger, I reckon I'll hang round an' see you ain't bothered none," he said. "Friend," he went on, indicating me with a slight wave of one extended gun, "jest rustle the money in sight. We'll square up after the show."
I reached out and swept the considerable sum toward me, and, pocketing it, I too rose, ready for what might come.
"You-all give me elbow room!" yelled Steele at Martin and his cowed contingent.
Steele looked around, evidently for some kind of implement, and, espying a heavy ax in a corner, he grasped it, and, sweeping it to and fro as if it had been a buggy-whip, he advanced on the faro layout. The crowd fell back, edging toward the door.
One crashing blow wrecked the dealer's box and table, sending them splintering among the tumbled chairs. Then the giant Ranger began to spread further ruin about him.
Martin's place was rough and bare, of the most primitive order, and like a thousand other dens of its kind, consisted of a large room with adobe walls, a rude bar of boards, piles of kegs in a corner, a stove, and a few tables with chairs.
Steele required only one blow for each article he struck, and he demolished it. He stove in the head of each keg.
When the dark liquor gurgled out, Martin cursed, and the crowd followed suit. That was a loss!
The little cattleman, holding the men covered, backed them out of the room, Martin needing a plain, stern word to put him out entirely. I went out, too, for I did not want to miss any moves on the part of that gang.
Close behind me came the cattleman, the kind of cool, nervy Texan I liked. He had Martin well judged, too, for there was no evidence of any bold resistance.
But there were shouts and loud acclamations; and these, with the crashing blows of Steele's ax, brought a curious and growing addition to the crowd.
Soon sodden thuds from inside the saloon and red dust pouring out the door told that Steele was attacking the walls of Martin's place. Those adobe bricks when old and crumbly were easily demolished.
Steele made short work of the back wall, and then he smashed out half of the front of the building. That seemed to satisfy him.
When he stepped out of the dust he was wet with sweat, dirty, and disheveled, hot with his exertion--a man whose great stature and muscular development expressed a wonderful physical strength and energy. And his somber face, with the big gray eyes, like open furnaces, expressed a passion equal to his strength.
Perhaps only then did wild and lawless Linrock grasp the real significance of this Ranger.
Steele threw the ax at Martin's feet.
"Martin, don't reopen here," he said curtly. "Don't start another place in Linrock. If you do--jail at Austin for years."
Martin, livid and scowling, yet seemingly dazed with what had occurred, slunk away, accompanied by his cronies. Steele took the money I had appropriated, returned to me what I had lost, did likewise with the cattleman, and then, taking out the sum named by Mrs. Price, he divided the balance with the other players who had been in the game.
Then he stalked off through the crowd as if he knew that men who slunk from facing him would not have nerve enough to attack him even from behind.
"Wal, damn me!" ejaculated the little cattleman in mingled admiration and satisfaction. "So thet's that Texas Ranger, Steele, hey? Never seen him before. All Texas, thet Ranger!"
I lingered downtown as much to enjoy the sensation as to gain the different points of view.
No doubt about the sensation! In one hour every male resident of Linrock and almost every female had viewed the wreck of Martin's place. A fire could not have created half the excitement.
And in that excitement both men and women gave vent to speech they might not have voiced at a calmer moment. The women, at least, were not afraid to talk, and I made mental note of the things they said.
"Did he do it all alone?"
"Thank God a man's come to Linrock."
"Good for Molly Price!"
"Oh, it'll make bad times for Linrock."
It almost seemed that all the women were glad, and this was in itself a vindication of the Ranger's idea of law.
The men, however--Blandy, proprietor of the Hope So, and others of his ilk, together with the whole brood of idle gaming loungers, and in fact even storekeepers, ranchers, cowboys--all shook their heads sullenly or doubtfully.
Striking indeed now was the absence of any joking. Steele had showed his hand, and, as one gambler said: "It's a hard hand to call."
The truth was, this Ranger Service was hateful to the free-and-easy Texan who lived by anything except hard and honest work, and it was damnably hateful to the lawless class. Steele's authority, now obvious to all, was unlimited; it could go as far as he had power to carry it.
From present indications that power might be considerable. The work of native sheriffs and constables in western Texas had been a farce, an utter failure. If an honest native of a community undertook to be a sheriff he became immediately a target for rowdy cowboys and other vicious elements.
Many a town south and west of San Antonio owed its peace and prosperity to Rangers, and only to them. They had killed or driven out the criminals. They interpreted the law for themselves, and it was only such an attitude toward law--the stern, uncompromising, implacable extermination of the lawless--that was going to do for all Texas what it had done for part.
Steele was the driving wedge that had begun to split Linrock--split the honest from dominance by the dishonest. To be sure, Steele might be killed at any moment, and that contingency was voiced in the growl of one sullen man who said: "Wot the hell are we up against? Ain't somebody goin' to plug this Ranger?"
It was then that the thing for which Steele stood, the Ranger Service--to help, to save, to defend, to punish, with such somber menace of death as seemed embodied in his cold attitude toward resistance--took hold of Linrock and sunk deep into both black and honest hearts.
It was what was behind Steele that seemed to make him more than an officer--a man.
I could feel how he began to loom up, the embodiment of a powerful force--the Ranger Service--the fame of which, long known to this lawless Pecos gang, but scouted as a vague and distant thing, now became an actuality, a Ranger in the flesh, whose surprising attributes included both the law and the enforcement of it.
When I reached the ranch the excitement had preceded me. Miss Sampson and Sally, both talking at once, acquainted me with the fact that they had been in a store on the main street a block or more from Martin's place.
They had seen the crowd, heard the uproar; and, as they had been hurriedly started toward home by their attendant Dick, they had encountered Steele stalking by.
"He looked grand!" exclaimed Sally.
Then I told the girls the whole story in detail.
"Russ, is it true, just as you tell it?" inquired Diane earnestly.
"Absolutely. I know Mrs. Price went to Steele with her trouble. I was in Martin's place when he entered. Also I was playing in the crooked game. And I saw him wreck Martin's place. Also, I heard him forbid Martin to start another place in Linrock."
"Then he does do splendid things," she said softly, as if affirming to herself.
I walked on then, having gotten a glimpse of Colonel Sampson in the background. Before I reached the corrals Sally came running after me, quite flushed and excited.
"Russ, my uncle wants to see you," she said. "He's in a bad temper. Don't lose yours, please."
She actually took my hand. What a child she was, in all ways except that fatal propensity to flirt. Her statement startled me out of any further thought of her. Why did Sampson want to see me? He never noticed me. I dreaded facing him--not from fear, but because I must see more and more of the signs of guilt in Diane's father.
He awaited me on the porch. As usual, he wore riding garb, but evidently he had not been out so far this day. He looked worn. There was a furtive shadow in his eyes. The haughty, imperious temper, despite Sally's conviction, seemed to be in abeyance.
"Russ, what's this I hear about Martin's saloon being cleaned out?" he asked. "Dick can't give particulars."
Briefly and concisely I told the colonel exactly what had happened. He chewed his cigar, then spat it out with an unintelligible exclamation.
"Martin's no worse than others," he said. "Blandy leans to crooked faro. I've tried to stop that, anyway. If Steele can, more power to him!"
Sampson turned on his heel then and left me with a queer feeling of surprise and pity.
He had surprised me before, but he had never roused the least sympathy. It was probably that Sampson was indeed powerless, no matter what his position.
I had known men before who had become involved in crime, yet were too manly to sanction a crookedness they could not help.
Miss Sampson had been standing in her door. I could tell she had heard; she looked agitated. I knew she had been talking to her father.
"Russ, he hates the Ranger," she said. "That's what I fear. It'll bring trouble on us. Besides, like everybody here, he's biased. He can't see anything good in Steele. Yet he says: 'More power to him!' I'm mystified, and, oh, I'm between two fires!"
* * * * * * *
Steele's next noteworthy achievement was as new to me as it was strange to Linrock. I heard a good deal about it from my acquaintances, some little from Steele, and the concluding incident I saw and heard myself.
Andy Vey was a broken-down rustler whose activity had ceased and who spent his time hanging on at the places frequented by younger and better men of his kind. As he was a parasite, he was often thrown out of the dens.
Moreover, it was an open secret that he had been a rustler, and the men with whom he associated had not yet, to most of Linrock, become known as such.
One night Vey had been badly beaten in some back room of a saloon and carried out into a vacant lot and left there. He lay there all that night and all the next day. Probably he would have died there had not Steele happened along.
The Ranger gathered up the crippled rustler, took him home, attended to his wounds, nursed him, and in fact spent days in the little adobe house with him.
During this time I saw Steele twice, at night out in our rendezvous. He had little to communicate, but was eager to hear when I had seen Jim Hoden, Morton, Wright, Sampson, and all I could tell about them, and the significance of things in town.
Andy Vey recovered, and it was my good fortune to be in the Hope So when he came in and addressed a crowd of gamesters there.
"Fellers," he said, "I'm biddin' good-by to them as was once my friends. I'm leavin' Linrock. An' I'm askin' some of you to take thet good-by an' a partin' word to them as did me dirt.
"I ain't a-goin' to say if I'd crossed the trail of this Ranger years ago thet I'd of turned round an' gone straight. But mebbe I would--mebbe. There's a hell of a lot a man doesn't know till too late. I'm old now, ready fer the bone pile, an' it doesn't matter. But I've got a head on me yet, an' I want to give a hunch to thet gang who done me. An' that hunch wants to go around an' up to the big guns of Pecos.
"This Texas Star Ranger was the feller who took me in. I'd of died like a poisoned coyote but fer him. An' he talked to me. He gave me money to git out of Pecos. Mebbe everybody'll think he helped me because he wanted me to squeal. To squeal who's who round these rustler diggin's. Wal, he never asked me. Mebbe he seen I wasn't a squealer. But I'm thinkin' he wouldn't ask a feller thet nohow.
"An' here's my hunch. Steele has spotted the outfit. Thet ain't so much, mebbe. But I've been with him, an' I'm old figgerin' men. Jest as sure as God made little apples he's a goin' to put thet outfit through--or he's a-goin' to kill them!"
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