Mary Jane's Diversion

by Charles Alden Seltzer

A Western Tale

Texas Rankin stood in the street in front of the High Card Saloon, his lank body trembling with surprise, indecision, and indignation; his face alight with the fire of outraged dignity. Three long paces from him stood Sheriff Webster, indifferently fondling an ivory-handled .45.

The sheriff was nonchalantly deliberative in his actions, betraying only a negative interest in Rankin's movements—for Rankin's holster yawned with eloquent emptiness. With his empty holster dragging on his desires, it seemed to Rankin that to await the sheriff's pleasure was his most logical course.

And so he waited.

The sheriff had come upon him, when, in an incautious moment, he had emerged from the High Card Saloon, having forgotten the very important fact that the sheriff was looking for him. This forgetfulness had been the cause of his undoing, for at the instant he had turned to go down the street the sheriff had reached for his gun. The empty holster was evidence of his success.

After that there was no use in getting excited. True, Texas had flashed around in his tracks when he had felt the gun leaving its holster, and had made a lightning movement with his hand to prevent such a disgraceful occurrence. But he might just as well have reached for a rainbow. As he had faced about, rage-flushed and impotent, he saw his gun swinging loosely in Webster's left hand, while in Webster's right hand another big six-shooter had reached a foreboding level.

The distance between the two men approximated ten feet; for Webster had wisely stepped back, knowing Rankin's reluctance toward submission.

And now, over the ten feet of space, captive and captor surveyed one another with that narrowing of the eyes which denotes tension and warns of danger.

"I reckon I was too quick for you, Texas," said Webster, with a gentleness that fell too softly to be genuine.

Rankin gazed dolefully at his empty holster. The skin tensed over his teeth in a grinning sneer.

"I ain't sayin' that you took a mean advantage," he said, raising his eyes and allowing them an expression of mild innocence that contrasted strangely with his drawn lips, "but you might have given me a chance to fight it out square. I wouldn't have took your gun, Jim."

Knowing Texas less intimately, the sheriff might have been misled by this crude sentiment; but the sheriff's fingers only drew more closely around the ivory handle of his .45. And there came a glint of humor into his eyes.

"I ain't sayin' you would, Texas. But as sheriff of Socorro County I ain't takin' any chances. I wanted to talk to you, an' I knew if I had your gun I'd feel easier."

"Which means that you didn't want me to have a chance," complained Texas glumly. "Socorro's always been meaner'n ——"

"'T ain't Socorro's fault," interrupted the sheriff with a sudden coldness; "you've been cuttin' didoes in Socorro for so long a time that you've disgraced yourself. You've gambled an' shot yourself into disfavor with the élite. You've been as ornery an' as compromisin' as it's possible for any human maverick to get without havin' to requisition the unwillin' mourners."

"Not that I'm sayin' you're naturally bad, Texas. It's that you've got an overdose of what them modern brain specialists call exaggerated ego; which us common critters would call plain swell head. That there disease is listed an' catalogued in the text books of the New York Medical Institoot as bearin' a close relationship to the geni Loco; which is a scientific way of sayin' that you've got buzzers in your attic."

Texas smiled, showing his teeth in wan sarcasm.

"You wouldn't say that if I had my gun, Jim. It ain't like you to pour out your blackguardisms on a man what ain't armed."

"I ain't blackguardin' you none," said Webster easily. "It's the naked truth, an' you know it. Takin' your gun was part of my official duty. Personally I could have talked to you without trampling down any of the niceties of etiquette, but officially I had to have your gun."

Rankin's face lengthened with a deep melancholy. With this expression he intended to convey the impression that he was suffering a martyrdom. But the sheriff's acquaintance with Texas was not recent.

"An' now that you've got the gun," said Texas, after an embarrassed silence, "what's the next thing on the programme?"

"Takin' your gun," said the sheriff heavily, "was a preliminary; like they say in the sporting papers. The big event is that you're goin' to say your adoos to Socorro without bein' allowed to make any farewell announcement. The reason is that you an' Socorro is incongruous—like a side-saddle on a razor-back hog. Socorro won't stand for you a minute longer. You're a Public Favorite which has lost its popularity an' which has become heterogeneous to the established order of things. In other words, you're an outlaw; a soft-spoken, lazy, good-for-nothin' road-agent. An' though Socorro ain't never had anything on you before, it knows you had a hand in robbin' the express office last night. An' it's——"

"You're a damn ——"

"——like playin' a king-full against three deuces that you done the trick. You was seen goin' toward the station about an hour before Budd Tucker found Ridgely, the agent, stretched out on the floor of the office, a bullet from a .45 clean through him. An' there's five thousand dollars in gold gone, an' no trace of it. An' there's been no strangers in town. An' here's your gun, showin' plain that it's been shot off lately, for there's the powder smudge on the cylinder an' the barrel. That's a pay streak of circumstantial evidence or I ain't sheriff of Socorro!"

Rankin's eyes had flashed with an unusual brilliancy as the sheriff had spoken of him being seen going toward the station previous to the finding of the agent's body, but they glazed over with unconcern during the rest of the recital. And as the sheriff concluded, Rankin gazed scornfully at him, sneering mildly:

"I couldn't add nothin' to what you've just said." He idly kicked the gray dust that was mounded at his feet, standing loose and inert, as though he cared little what might be the outcome of this impromptu interview. And then, suddenly, his blue eyes twinkled humorously as he raised them to meet the sheriff's.

"Give you time you might tell me where I spent the money," he said drily. "There's no tellin' where your theorizin' might end."

The sheriff ignored this, but he eyed his prisoner meditatively.

"There's been a rumor," he said coldly, "that you've got cracked on my daughter, Mary Jane. But I ain't never been able to properly confirm it. I meant to tell you some time ago that while I ain't had no objection to livin' in the same town with you, I'm some opposed to havin' you for a son-in-law. But now, since the express robbery, it won't be necessary for me to tell you not to nose around my house, for you're goin' to ride straight out of Socorro County, an' you ain't comin' back any more. If you do, I reckon you'll discover that Socorro's present leniency ain't elastic enough to be stretched to cover your home-comin'."

"I ain't sayin' nothin'," said Texas, glancing with pensive eyes to a point far up the sun-baked street where his gaze rested upon a pretentious house in a neatly-fenced yard where there were green things that gave a restful impression. "Circumstantial evidence is sure convincin'." he sighed deeply. "I reckon you knowed all along that I thought a heap of Mary Jane. That's the reason you picked me out for the express job."

He scowled as his eyes took in the meagre details of Socorro's one street. Because of long association these details had become mental fixtures. Socorro had been his home for ten years, and in ten years things grow into a man's heart. And civic pride had been his one great virtue. If in the summer the alkali dust of the street formed into miniature hills of grayish white which sifted into surrounding hollows under the whipping tread of the cow-pony's hoofs, Texas likened it unto ruffled waters that seek a level. The same condition in another town would have drawn a curse from him. If in the winter the huge windrows of caked mud stretched across the street in unlovely phalanx, Texas was reminded of itinerant mountain ranges. The stranger who would be so unwary as to take issue with him on this point would regret—if he lived. The unpainted shanties, the huddled, tottering dives, the tumble-down express station—all, even the maudlin masquerade of the High Card Saloon—were institutions inseparable from his thoughts, inviolable and sacred in the measure of his love for them.

And now! Something caught in his throat and gave forth a choking sound.

"But I reckon it's just as well," he said resignedly. "I sure ain't of much account." He hesitated and smiled weakly at the sheriff. "I ain't croakin'," he said apologetically; "there's the circumstantial evidence." He hesitated again, evidently battling a ponderous question. "You didn't happen to hear Mary Jane say anything about the express job?" he questioned with an expression of dog-like hopefulness. "Anything that would lead you to believe she knowed about it?"

"I don't see what——"

"No, of course!" He shuffled his feet awkwardly. "An' so she don't know anything. Didn't mention me at all?" The hopefulness was gone from his eyes, and in its place was the dull glaze of puzzled wonder. "Not that it makes any difference," he added quickly, as he caught a sudden sharp glance from the sheriff's eyes.

"An' so I'm to leave Socorro." He looked dully at the sheriff. "Why, of course, there's the circumstantial evidence." His eyes swept the shanties, the street, the timber-dotted sides of the mountains that rose above the town—familiar landmarks of his long sojourn; landmarks that brought pleasant memories.

"I've lived here a long time," he said, with abrupt melancholy, his voice grating with suppressed regret. "I won't forget soon."

There ensued a silence which lasted long. It brought a suspicious lump into the sheriff's throat.

"I wouldn't take it so hard, Texas," he said gently. "Mebbe it'll be the best for you in the long run. If you get away from here mebbe you make a man——"

"Quit your damn croakin'!" flashed back Texas. "I ain't askin' for none of your mushy sentiment!" He straightened up suddenly and smiled with set lips. "I guess I've been a fool. If you'll hand over that six-shooter I'll be goin'. I've got business in San Marcial."

"I'll walk up to the station platform an' lay the gun there," said the sheriff coldly; for Texas was less dangerous at a distance; "an' when you see me start away from the platform you can start for the gun. I'm takin' your word that you'll leave peaceable."

And so, with his gun again in its holster, Texas threw himself astride his Pinto pony and loped down toward the sloping banks of the Rio Grande del Norte.

A quarter of a mile from town he halted on the bare knob of a low hill and took a lingering look at the pretentious house amid the green surroundings.

Near the house was something he had not seen when he had looked before—the flutter of a white dress against the background of green. As he looked the white figure moved rapidly through the garden and disappeared behind the house.

"She didn't say a word," said Texas chokingly.

Ten hours out of Socorro Texas Rankin rode morosely into San Marcial. Into San Marcial the unbeautiful, with its vista of unpainted shanties and lurid dives. For in San Marcial foregathered the men of the mines and the ranges; men of forgotten morals, but of brawn and muscle, whose hearts beat not with a yearning for high ideals, but with a lust for wealth and gain—white, Indian, Mexican, half-breed; predatory spirits of many nations, opposed in the struggle for existence.

For ten hours Texas had ridden the river trail, and for ten hours his ears had been burdened with the dull beat of his pony's hoofs on the matted mesquite grass, and the rattle of his wooden stirrups against the chaparral growth. And for ten hours his mind had been confused with a multitude of perplexities and resentments.

But all mental confusions reach a culminating point when the mind finally throws aside the useless chaff of thought and considers only the questions that have to do with the heart. Wherefore, Texas Rankin's mind dwelt on Mary Jane. Subconsciously his mind harbored rebellion against her father, who had judged him; against Socorro, which had misunderstood him; against Fate, which had been unjust. All these atoms of personal interest were elements of a primitive emotion that finally evolved into one great concrete determination that he would show Jim Webster, Socorro, Mary Jane—the world, that he was not the creature they had thought him. Tearing aside all mental superfluities, there was revealed a new structure of thought:

"I am goin' to be a man again!"

And so Texas rode his tired pony in the gathering dusk; down the wide street that was beginning to flicker with the shafts of light from grimy windows; down to the hitching rail in front of the Top Notch Saloon—where he dismounted and stood stiffly beside his beast while he planned his regeneration.

Half an hour later Texas sat opposite a man at a card table in the rear of the Top Notch Saloon.

The man conversed easily, but it was noticeable that he watched Texas with cat-like vigilance, and that he poured his whiskey with his left hand.

Ordinarily Texas would have noticed this departure from the polite rules, but laboring under the excitement that his new determination brought him he was careless. For he had planned his regeneration, and his talk with the man was the beginning.

"You lifted the express box at Socorro, Buck!" said Texas, so earnestly that the table trembled.

Buck Reible, gambler, outlaw, murderer, pushed back his broad-brimmed hat with his hand—always he used his left—and gazed with level, menacing eyes at Texas. His lips parted with a half-sneer.

"If a man does a job nowadays, there's always some one wants in on it!" he declared, voicing his suspicion of Rankin's motive in bringing up the subject. "Because you was lucky in bein' close when the game come off is the reason you want a share of the cash," he added satirically. "How much——"

"Go easy, Buck," said Texas. "I ain't no angel, but I never played your style. I ain't askin' for a share."

"Then what in——"

"It's a new deal," declared Texas heavily. "A square deal. You took five thousand dollars out of Socorro, an' you salivated the agent doin' it. Jim Webster thought it was me, an' I was invited to a farewell performance in which I done the starrin'. Some night-prowler saw me down near the station just before you made your grand entrée, an'——"

"Serves you right for spoonin' with a female so close to where gentlemen has business," said Buck. "I saw her when you come toward me shootin'."

"An' what makes it more aggravatin'," continued Texas, unmoved by the interruption; "is that the lady was Jim Webster's daughter, an' we was thinkin' of gettin' married. But we didn't want Jim to know just then, an' she told me to keep mum, seein' that Jim was opposed. She said we'd keep it secret until——"

"I admire the lady's choice," said Buck, sneering ironically.

"——until I braced up an' was a man again," went on Texas, with bull-dog persistency.

"Then you wasn't thinkin' of gettin' married soon," slurred Buck.

"I reckon we was," returned Texas coldly; "that's why I came here. I'm goin' to take that five thousand back to Socorro with me!"

And now Buck used his right hand. But quick as he was, he was late. Rankin's gun gaped at him across the table the while his own weapon lagged tardily half-way in its holster.

"I'm goin' to be a man again," said Texas. There was a positiveness in his voice that awoke thoughts of death and violence.

"You damn——" began Buck.

"I'll count ten," said Texas frigidly. "If the money ain't on the table then I reckon you won't care what becomes of it!"

"One!—Two!"

With a snarl of rage and hate Buck rose from his chair and sprang clear, his gun flashing to a level with the movement, its savage roar shattering the silence.

Texas did not wince as the heavy bullet struck him, but his face went white. He had been a principal in more than one shooting affray, and experience had taught him the value of instantaneous action. And so, even with the stinging pain in his left shoulder, his hand swept his gun lightly upward, and before it had reached a level he had begun to pull the trigger. But to his astonishment only the metallic click, click of the hammer striking the steel of the cylinder rewarded his efforts. Once, twice, thrice; so rapidly that the metallic clicks blended.

And now he saw why he was to meet his death at the muzzle of Buck's gun. Fearing him, Jim Webster had removed the cartridges from his weapon before returning it to him that morning. He had committed a fatal error in not examining it after he had received it from Webster's hand. The Law, in judging him, had removed his chance of life.

But he smiled with bitter irony into Buck's eyes as the latter, still snarling and relentless, deliberately shot again; once, twice.

According to the ancient custom—which has many champions—and to the conventions—which are not to be violated with impunity—Texas should have recovered from his wounds to return to Mary Jane and Socorro. No narrative is complete without the entire vindication of the brave and the triumph of the honorable. But to the chronicler belongs only the simple task of true and conscientious record.

Therefore is the end written thus:

Came to Jim Webster's home in Socorro a week later a babbler from San Marcial, who told a tale:

"There was a man by the name of Texas Rankin came down to San Marcial last week an' went gunnin' for Buck Reible. Quickest thing you ever saw. Buck peppered him so fast you couldn't count; an' I'm told Texas wasn't no slouch with a gun, either."

"Dead?" questioned Webster.

"As a door nail," returned the babbler.

"Socorro's bad man," said Webster, sententiously. "Wasn't a bit of good in him. Gamblin', shootin', outlaw. Best job Buck ever done."

He found Mary Jane in the kitchen, singing over the supper dishes.

"Texas Rankin is dead over at San Marcial," he said, with the importance of one communicating delectable news.

Mary Jane continued with her dishes, looking at her father over her shoulder with a mild unconcern.

"At San Marcial?" she said wonderingly. "I didn't know he had left Socorro!"

"A week now," returned Webster with much complacence. "Fired him from Socorro for doin' that express job. Socorro's bad enough without Texas——"

His mouth opened with dumb astonishment as Mary Jane whirled around on him with a laugh on her lips.

"Why, dad! Texas Rankin didn't do that job! It was Buck Reible. Texas told me the night it happened. We were walking down near the station and we heard some shooting. I wasn't close enough to see plainly, but Texas said he could recognize Buck by the flash of his gun. And so Texas is dead!"

"I thought," said Webster feebly, "that you was pretty sweet on Texas."

"Sweet!" said Mary Jane, blushing with maidenly modesty. "Socorro is so dull. A young lady must have some diversion."

"Then you don't care——"

"Why, dad! You old sobersides. To think—why I was only fooling with him. It was fun to see how serious——"

"In that case——" began Webster. And then he went out and sat on the front stoop.

Far into the night he sat, and always he stared in the direction of San Marcial.