Authors: Zane Grey
The Rustlers Of Pecos County
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.