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We silently rode home in the gathering dusk. Miss Sampson dismounted at the porch, but Sally went on with me to the corrals. I felt heavy and somber, as if a catastrophe was near at hand.
"Help me down," said Sally. Her voice was low and tremulous.
"Sally, did you hear what Miss Sampson said to Steele?" I asked.
"A little, here and there. I heard Steele tell her he loved her. Isn't this a terrible mix?"
"It sure is. Did you hear--do you understand why she appealed to Steele, asked him to be her friend?"
"Did she? No, I didn't hear that. I heard her say she had wronged him. Then I tried not to hear any more. Tell me."
"No Sally; it's not my secret. I wish I could do something--help them somehow. Yes, it's sure a terrible mix. I don't care so much about myself."
"Nor me," Sally retorted.
"You! Oh, you're only a shallow spoiled child! You'd cease to love anything the moment you won it. And I--well, I'm no good, you say. But their love! My God, what a tragedy! You've no idea, Sally. They've hardly spoken to each other, yet are ready to be overwhelmed."
Sally sat so still and silent that I thought I had angered or offended her. But I did not care much, one way or another. Her coquettish fancy for me and my own trouble had sunk into insignificance. I did not look up at her, though she was so close I could feel her little, restless foot touching me. The horses in the corrals were trooping up to the bars. Dusk had about given place to night, although in the west a broad flare of golden sky showed bright behind dark mountains.
"So I say you're no good?" asked Sally after a long silence. Then her voice and the way her hand stole to my shoulder should have been warning for me. But it was not, or I did not care.
"Yes, you said that, didn't you?" I replied absently.
"I can change my mind, can't I? Maybe you're only wild and reckless when you drink. Mrs. Hoden said such nice things about you. They made me feel so good."
I had no reply for that and still did not look up at her. I heard her swing herself around in the saddle. "Lift me down," she said.
Perhaps at any other time I would have remarked that this request was rather unusual, considering the fact that she was very light and sure of action, extremely proud of it, and likely to be insulted by an offer of assistance. But my spirit was dead. I reached for her hands, but they eluded mine, slipped up my arms as she came sliding out of the saddle, and then her face was very close to mine. "Russ!" she whispered. It was torment, wistfulness, uncertainty, and yet tenderness all in one little whisper. It caught me off guard or indifferent to consequences. So I kissed her, without passion, with all regret and sadness. She uttered a little cry that might have been mingled exultation and remorse for her victory and her broken faith. Certainly the instant I kissed her she remembered the latter. She trembled against me, and leaving unsaid something she had meant to say, she slipped out of my arms and ran. She assuredly was frightened, and I thought it just as well that she was.
Presently she disappeared in the darkness and then the swift little clinks of her spurs ceased. I laughed somewhat ruefully and hoped she would be satisfied. Then I put away the horses and went in for my supper.
After supper I noisily bustled around my room, and soon stole out for my usual evening's spying. The night was dark, without starlight, and the stiff wind rustled the leaves and tore through the vines on the old house. The fact that I had seen and heard so little during my constant vigilance did not make me careless or the task monotonous. I had so much to think about that sometimes I sat in one place for hours and never knew where the time went.
This night, the very first thing, I heard Wright's well-known footsteps, and I saw Sampson's door open, flashing a broad bar of light into the darkness. Wright crossed the threshold, the door closed, and all was dark again outside. Not a ray of light escaped from the window. This was the first visit of Wright for a considerable stretch of time. Little doubt there was that his talk with Sampson would be interesting to me.
I tiptoed to the door and listened, but I could hear only a murmur of voices. Besides, that position was too risky. I went round the corner of the house. Some time before I had made a discovery that I imagined would be valuable to me. This side of the big adobe house was of much older construction than the back and larger part. There was a narrow passage about a foot wide between the old and new walls, and this ran from the outside through to the patio. I had discovered the entrance by accident, as it was concealed by vines and shrubbery. I crawled in there, upon an opportune occasion, with the intention of boring a small hole through the adobe bricks. But it was not necessary to do that, for the wall was cracked; and in one place I could see into Sampson's room. This passage now afforded me my opportunity, and I decided to avail myself of it in spite of the very great danger. Crawling on my hands and knees very stealthily, I got under the shrubbery to the entrance of the passage. In the blackness a faint streak of light showed the location of the crack in the wall.
I had to slip in sidewise. It was a tight squeeze, but I entered without the slightest sound. If my position were to be betrayed it would not be from noise. As I progressed the passage grew a very little wider in that direction, and this fact gave rise to the thought that in case of a necessary and hurried exit I would do best by working toward the patio. It seemed a good deal of time was consumed in reaching my vantage-point. When I did get there the crack was a foot over my head. If I had only been tall like Steele! There was nothing to do but find toe-holes in the crumbling walls, and by bracing knees on one side, back against the other, hold myself up to the crack.
Once with my eye there I did not care what risk I ran. Sampson appeared disturbed; he sat stroking his mustache; his brow was clouded. Wright's face seemed darker, more sullen, yet lighted by some indomitable resolve.
"We'll settle both deals to-night," Wright was saying. "That's what I came for. That's why I've asked Snecker and Blome to be here."
"But suppose I don't choose to talk here?" protested Sampson impatiently. "I never before made my house a place to--"
"We've waited long enough. This place's as good as any. You've lost your nerve since that Ranger hit the town. First, now, will you give Diane to me?"
"George, you talk like a spoiled boy. Give Diane to you! Why, she's a woman and I'm finding out that she's got a mind of her own. I told you I was willing for her to marry you. I tried to persuade her. But Diane hasn't any use for you now. She liked you at first; but now she doesn't. So what can I do?"
"You can make her marry me," replied Wright.
"Make that girl do what she doesn't want to? It couldn't be done, even if I tried. And I don't believe I'll try. I haven't the highest opinion of you as a prospective son-in-law, George. But if Diane loved you I would consent. We'd all go away together before this damned miserable business is out. Then she'd never know. And maybe you might be more like you used to be before the West ruined you. But as matters stand you fight your own game with her; and I'll tell you now, you'll lose."
"What'd you want to let her come out here for?" demanded Wright hotly. "It was a dead mistake. I've lost my head over her. I'll have her or die. Don't you think if she was my wife I'd soon pull myself together? Since she came we've none of us been right. And the gang has put up a holler. No, Sampson, we've got to settle things to-night."
"Well, we can settle what Diane's concerned in right now," replied Sampson, rising. "Come on; we'll go ask her. See where you stand."
They went out, leaving the door open. I dropped down to rest myself and to wait. I would have liked to hear Miss Sampson's answer to him. But I could guess what it would be. Wright appeared to be all I had thought of him, and I believed I was going to find out presently that he was worse. Just then I wanted Steele as never before. Still, he was too big to worm his way into this place.
The men seemed to be absent a good while, though that feeling might have been occasioned by my interest and anxiety. Finally I heard heavy steps. Wright came in alone. He was leaden-faced, humiliated. Then something abject in him gave place to rage. He strode the room; he cursed.
Sampson returned, now appreciably calmer. I could not but decide that he felt relief at the evident rejection of Wright's proposal. "Don't fume about it, George," he said. "You see I can't help it. We're pretty wild out here, but I can't rope my daughter and give her to you as I would an unruly steer."
"Sampson, I can make her marry me," declared Wright thickly.
"You know the hold I got on you--the deal that made you boss of this rustler gang?"
"It isn't likely I'd forget," replied Sampson grimly.
"I can go to Diane--tell her that--make her believe I'd tell it broadcast, tell this Ranger Steele, unless she'd marry me!" Wright spoke breathlessly, with haggard face and shadowed eyes. He had no shame. He was simply in the grip of passion. Sampson gazed with dark, controlled fury at his relative. In that look I saw a strong, unscrupulous man fallen into evil ways, but still a man. It betrayed Wright to be the wild and passionate weakling.
I seemed to see also how, during all the years of association, this strong man had upheld the weak one. But that time had gone forever, both in intent on Sampson's part and in possibility. Wright, like the great majority of evil and unrestrained men on the border, had reached a point where influence was futile. Reason had degenerated. He saw only himself.
"But, George, Diane's the one person on earth who must never know I'm a rustler, a thief, a red-handed ruler of the worst gang on the border," replied Sampson impressively.
George bowed his head at that, as if the significance had just occurred to him. But he was not long at a loss. "She's going to find it out sooner or later. I tell you she knows now there's something wrong out here. She's got eyes. And that meddling cowboy of hers is smarter than you give him credit for. They're always together. You'll regret the day Russ ever straddled a horse on this ranch. Mark what I say."
"Diane's changed, I know; but she hasn't any idea yet that her daddy's a boss rustler. Diane's concerned about what she calls my duty as mayor. Also I think she's not satisfied with my explanations in regard to certain property."
Wright halted in his restless walk and leaned against the stone mantelpiece. He squared himself as if this was his last stand. He looked desperate, but on the moment showed an absence of his usual nervous excitement. "Sampson, that may well be true," he said. "No doubt all you say is true. But it doesn't help me. I want the girl. If I don't get her I reckon we'll all go to hell!" He might have meant anything, probably meant the worst. He certainly had something more in mind.
Sampson gave a slight start, barely perceptible like the twitch of an awakening tiger. He sat there, head down, stroking his mustache. Almost I saw his thought. I had long experience in reading men under stress of such emotion. I had no means to vindicate my judgment, but my conviction was that Sampson right then and there decided that the thing to do was to kill Wright. For my part, I wondered that he had not come to such a conclusion before. Not improbably the advent of his daughter had put Sampson in conflict with himself.
Suddenly he threw off a somber cast of countenance and began to talk. He talked swiftly, persuasively, yet I imagined he was talking to smooth Wright's passion for the moment. Wright no more caught the fateful significance of a line crossed, a limit reached, a decree decided, than if he had not been present. He was obsessed with himself.
How, I wondered, had a man of his mind ever lived so long and gone so far among the exacting conditions of Pecos County? The answer was perhaps, that Sampson had guided him, upheld him, protected him. The coming of Diane Sampson had been the entering wedge of dissension.
"You're too impatient," concluded Sampson. "You'll ruin any chance of happiness if you rush Diane. She might be won. If you told her who I am she'd hate you forever. She might marry you to save me, but she'd hate you.
"That isn't the way. Wait. Play for time. Be different with her. Cut out your drinking. She despises that. Let's plan to sell out here, stock, ranch, property, and leave the country. Then you'd have a show with her."
"I told you we've got to stick," growled Wright. "The gang won't stand for our going. It can't be done unless you want to sacrifice everything."
"You mean double-cross the men? Go without their knowing? Leave them here to face whatever comes?"
"I mean just that."
"I'm bad enough, but not that bad," returned Sampson. "If I can't get the gang to let me off I'll stay and face the music. All the same, Wright, did it ever strike you that most of our deals the last few years have been yours?"
"Yes. If I hadn't rung them in, there wouldn't have been any. You've had cold feet, Owens says, especially since this Ranger Steele has been here."
"Well, call it cold feet if you like. But I call it sense. We reached our limit long ago. We began by rustling a few cattle at a time when rustling was laughed at. But as our greed grew so did our boldness. Then came the gang, the regular trips, and one thing and another till, before we knew it--before I knew it, we had shady deals, hold-ups, and murders on our record. Then we had to go on. Too late to turn back!"
"I reckon we've all said that. None of the gang wants to quit. They all think, and I think, we can't be touched. We may be blamed, but nothing can be proved. We're too strong."
"There's where you're dead wrong," rejoined Sampson, emphatically. "I imagined that once, not long ago. I was bull-headed. Who would ever connect Roger Sampson with a rustler gang? I've changed my mind. I've begun to think. I've reasoned out things. We're crooked and we can't last. It's the nature of life, even in wild Pecos, for conditions to grow better. The wise deal for us would be to divide equally and leave the country, all of us."
"But you and I have all the stock--all the gain," protested Wright.
"I'll split mine."
"I won't--that settles that," added Wright instantly.
Sampson spread wide his hands as if it was useless to try to convince this man. Talking had not increased his calmness, and he now showed more than impatience. A dull glint gleamed deep in his eyes. "Your stock and property will last a long time--do you lots of good when Steele--"
"Bah!" hoarsely croaked Wright. The Ranger's name was a match applied to powder. "Haven't I told you he'd be dead soon same as Hoden is?"
"Yes, you mentioned the supposition," replied Sampson sarcastically. "I inquired, too just how that very desired event was to be brought about."
"Blome's here to kill Steele."
"Bah!" retorted Sampson in turn. "Blome can't kill this Ranger. He can't face him with a ghost of a show--he'll never get a chance at Steele's back. The man don't live on this border who's quick and smart enough to kill Steele."
"I'd like to know why?" demanded Wright sullenly.
"You ought to know. You've seen the Ranger pull a gun."
"Who told you?" queried Wright, his face working.
"Oh, I guessed it, if that'll do you."
"If Jack doesn't kill this damned Ranger I will," replied Wright, pounding the table.
Sampson laughed contemptuously. "George, don't make so much noise. And don't be a fool. You've been on the border for ten years. You've packed a gun and you've used it. You've been with Blome and Snecker when they killed their men. You've been present at many fights. But you never saw a man like Steele. You haven't got sense enough to see him right if you had a chance. Neither has Blome. The only way to get rid of Steele is for the gang to draw on him, all at once. And even then he's going to drop some of them."
"Sampson, you say that like a man who wouldn't care much if Steele did drop some of them," declared Wright, and now he was sarcastic.
"To tell you the truth I wouldn't," returned the other bluntly. "I'm pretty sick of this mess."
Wright cursed in amaze. His emotions were out of all proportion to his intelligence. He was not at all quick-witted. I had never seen a vainer or more arrogant man. "Sampson, I don't like your talk," he said.
"If you don't like the way I talk you know what you can do," replied Sampson quickly. He stood up then, cool and quiet, with flash of eyes and set of lips that told me he was dangerous.
"Well, after all, that's neither here nor there," went on Wright, unconsciously cowed by the other. "The thing is, do I get the girl?"
"Not by any means, except her consent."
"You'll not make her marry me?"
"No. No," replied Sampson, his voice still cold, low-pitched.
"All right. Then I'll make her."
Evidently Sampson understood the man before him so well that he wasted no more words. I knew what Wright never dreamed of, and that was that Sampson had a gun somewhere within reach and meant to use it.
Then heavy footsteps sounded outside, tramping upon the porch. I might have been mistaken, but I believed those footsteps saved Wright's life.
"There they are," said Wright, and he opened the door. Five masked men entered. About two of them I could not recognize anything familiar. I thought one had old Snecker's burly shoulders and another Bo Snecker's stripling shape. I did recognize Blome in spite of his mask, because his fair skin and hair, his garb and air of distinction made plain his identity. They all wore coats, hiding any weapons. The big man with burly shoulders shook hands with Sampson and the others stood back.
The atmosphere of that room had changed. Wright might have been a nonentity for all he counted. Sampson was another man--a stranger to me. If he had entertained a hope of freeing himself from his band, of getting away to a safer country, he abandoned it at the very sight of these men. There was power here and he was bound.
The big man spoke in low, hoarse whispers, and at this all the others gathered round him, close to the table. There were evidently some signs of membership not plain to me. Then all the heads were bent over the table. Low voices spoke, queried, answered, argued. By straining my ears I caught a word here and there. They were planning. I did not attempt to get at the meaning of the few words and phrases I distinguished, but held them in mind so to piece all together afterward. Before the plotters finished conferring I had an involuntary flashed knowledge of much and my whirling, excited mind made reception difficult.
When these rustlers finished whispering I was in a cold sweat. Steele was to be killed as soon as possible by Blome, or by the gang going to Steele's house at night. Morton had been seen with the Ranger. He was to meet the same fate as Hoden, dealt by Bo Snecker, who evidently worked in the dark like a ferret. Any other person known to be communing with Steele, or interested in him, or suspected of either, was to be silenced. Then the town was to suffer a short deadly spell of violence, directed anywhere, for the purpose of intimidating those people who had begun to be restless under the influence of the Ranger. After that, big herds of stock were to be rustled off the ranches to the north and driven to El Paso.
Then the big man, who evidently was the leader of the present convention, got up to depart. He went as swiftly as he had come, and was followed by the slender fellow. As far as it was possible for me to be sure, I identified these two as Snecker and his son. The others, however, remained. Blome removed his mask, which action was duplicated by the two rustlers who had stayed with him. They were both young, bronzed, hard of countenance, not unlike cowboys. Evidently this was now a social call on Sampson. He set out cigars and liquors for his guests, and a general conversation ensued, differing little from what might have been indulged in by neighborly ranchers. There was not a word spoken that would have caused suspicion.
Blome was genial, gay, and he talked the most. Wright alone seemed uncommunicative and unsociable. He smoked fiercely and drank continually. All at once he straightened up as if listening. "What's that?" he called suddenly.
The talking and laughter ceased. My own strained ears were pervaded by a slight rustling sound.
"Must be a rat," replied Sampson in relief. Strange how any sudden or unknown thing weighed upon him.
The rustling became a rattle.
"Sounds like a rattlesnake to me," said Blome.
Sampson got up from the table and peered round the room. Just at that instant I felt an almost inappreciable movement of the adobe wall which supported me. I could scarcely credit my senses. But the rattle inside Sampson's room was mingling with little dull thuds of falling dirt. The adobe wall, merely dried mud was crumbling. I distinctly felt a tremor pass through it. Then the blood gushed with sickening coldness back to my heart and seemingly clogged it.
"What in the hell!" exclaimed Sampson.
"I smell dust," said Blome sharply.
That was the signal for me to drop down from my perch, yet despite my care I made a noise.
"Did you hear a step?" queried Sampson.
Then a section of the wall fell inward with a crash. I began to squeeze my body through the narrow passage toward the patio.
"Hear him!" yelled Wright. "This side."
"No, he's going that way," yelled someone else. The tramp of heavy boots lent me the strength and speed of desperation. I was not shirking a fight, but to be cornered like a trapped coyote was another matter. I almost tore my clothes off in that passage. The dust nearly stifled me.
When I burst into the patio it was not one single instant too soon. But one deep gash of breath revived me, and I was up, gun in hand, running for the outlet into the court. Thumping footsteps turned me back. While there was a chance to get away I did not want to meet odds in a fight. I thought I heard some one running into the patio from the other end. I stole along, and coming to a door, without any idea of where it might lead, I softly pushed it open a little way and slipped in.
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