I did not recognize Steele's. As I hurried away I detected more than one of Steele's nearest neighbors peering at me from windows and doors. Then I went to Mrs. Hoden's. She was up and about and cheerful. The children were playing, manifestly well cared for and content. Mrs. Hoden had not seen Steele since I had. Miss Samson had sent her servant.
There was a very decided change in the atmosphere of Mrs. Hoden's home, and I saw that for her the worst was past, and she was bravely, hopefully facing the future. From there, I hurried to the main street of Linrock and to that section where violence brooded, ready at any chance moment to lift its hydra head. For that time of day the street seemed unusually quiet.
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.
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.
"If they had the nerve?" "Not thet so much." "What then? What'd make them fight?" "A leader!" I went out of Hoden's with that word ringing in my ears. A leader! In my mind's eye I saw a horde of dark faced, dusty-booted cattlemen riding grim and armed behind Vaughn Steele.
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.
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 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.
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.