Light of the Western Stars

Author: Zane Grey

VIII El Capitan

Stillwell’s interest in the revolution across the Mexican line had manifestly increased with the news that Gene Stewart had achieved distinction with the rebel forces. Thereafter the old cattleman sent for El Paso and Douglas newspapers, wrote to ranchmen he knew on the big bend of the Rio Grande, and he would talk indefinitely to any one who would listen to him. There was not any possibility of Stillwell’s friends at the ranch forgetting his favorite cowboy. Stillwell always prefaced his eulogy with an apologetic statement that Stewart had gone to the bad. Madeline liked to listen to him, though she was not always sure which news was authentic and which imagination.

There appeared to be no doubt, however, that the cowboy had performed some daring feats for the rebels. Madeline found his name mentioned in several of the border papers. When the rebels under Madero stormed and captured the city of Juarez, Stewart did fighting that won him the name of El Capitan. This battle apparently ended the revolution. The capitulation of President Diaz followed shortly, and there was a feeling of relief among ranchers on the border from Texas to California. Nothing more was heard of Gene Stewart until April, when a report reached Stillwell that the cowboy had arrived in El Cajon, evidently hunting trouble. The old cattleman saddled a horse and started post-haste for town. In two days he returned, depressed in spirit. Madeline happened to be present when Stillwell talked to Alfred.

"I got there too late, Al," said the cattleman. "Gene was gone. An’ what do you think of this? Danny Mains hed jest left with a couple of burros packed. I couldn’t find what way he went, but I’m bettin’ he hit the Peloncillo trail."

"Danny will show up some day," replied Alfred. "What did you learn about Stewart? Maybe he left with Danny."

"Not much," said Stillwell, shortly. "Gene’s hell-bent fer election! No mountains fer him."

"Well tell us about him."

Stillwell wiped his sweaty brow and squared himself to talk.

"Wal, it’s sure amazin’ strange about Gene. Its got me locoed. He arrived in El Cajon a week or so ago. He was trained down like as if he’d been ridin’ the range all winter. He hed plenty of money—Mex, they said. An’ all the Greasers was crazy about him. Called him El Capitan. He got drunk an’ went roarin’ round fer Pat Hawe. You remember that Greaser who was plugged last October—the night Miss Majesty arrived? Wal, he’s daid. He’s daid, an’ people says thet Pat is a-goin’ to lay thet killin’ onto Gene. I reckon thet’s jest talk, though Pat is mean enough to do it, if he hed the nerve. Anyway, if he was in El Cajon he kept mighty much to hisself. Gene walked up an’ down, up an’ down, all day an’ night, lookin’ fer Pat. But he didn’t find him. An’, of course, he kept gettin’ drunker. He jest got plumb bad. He made lots of trouble, but there wasn’t no gun-play. Mebbe thet made him sore, so he went an’ licked Flo’s brother-in-law. Thet wasn’t so bad. Jack sure needed a good lickin’. Wal, then Gene met Danny an’ tried to get Danny drunk. An’ he couldn’t! What do you think of that? Danny hedn’t been drinkin’—wouldn’t touch a drop. I’m sure glad of thet, but it’s amazin’ strange. Why, Danny was a fish fer red liquor. I guess he an’ Gene had some pretty hard words, though I’m not sure about thet. Anyway, Gene went down to the railroad an’ he got on an engine, an’ he was in the engine when it pulled out. Lord, I hope he doesn’t hold up the train! If he gets gay over in Arizona he’ll go to the pen at Yuma. An’ thet pen is a graveyard fer cowboys. I wired to agents along the railroad to look out fer Stewart, an’ to wire back to me if he’s located."

"Suppose you do find him, Stillwell, what can you do?" inquired Alfred.

The old man nodded gloomily.

"I straightened him up once. Mebbe I can do it again." Then, brightening somewhat, be turned to Madeline. "I jest hed an idee, Miss Majesty. If I can get him, Gene Steward is the cowboy I want fer my foreman. He can manage this bunch of cow-punchers thet are drivin’ me dotty. What’s more, since he’s fought fer the rebels an’ got that name El Capitan, all the Greasers in the country will kneel to him. Now, Miss Majesty, we hevn’t got rid of Don Carlos an’ his vaqueros yet. To be sure, he sold you his house an’ ranch an’ stock. But you remember nothin’ was put in black and white about when he should get out. An’ Don Carlos ain’t gettin’ out. I don’t like the looks of things a little bit. I’ll tell you now thet Don Carlos knows somethin’ about the cattle I lost, an’ thet you’ve been losin’ right along. Thet Greaser is hand an’ glove with the rebels. I’m willin’ to gamble thet when he does get out he an’ his vaqueros will make another one of the bands of guerrillas thet are harassin’ the border. This revolution ain’t over’ yet. It’s jest commenced. An’ all these gangs of outlaws are goin’ to take advantage of it. We’ll see some old times, mebbe. Wal, I need Gene Stewart. I need him bad. Will you let me hire him, Miss Majesty, if I can get him straightened up?"

The old cattleman ended huskily.

"Stillwell, by all means find Stewart, and do not wait to straighten him up. Bring him to the ranch," replied Madeline.

Thanking her, Stillwell led his horse away.

"Strange how he loves that cowboy!" murmured Madeline.

"Not so strange, Majesty," replied her brother. "Not when you know. Stewart has been with Stillwell on some hard trips into the desert alone. There’s no middle course of feeling between men facing death in the desert. Either hey hate each other or love each other. I don’t know, but I imagine Stewart did something for Stillwell—saved us life, perhaps. Besides, Stewart’s a lovable chap when he’s going straight. I hope Stillwell brings him back. We do need him, Majesty. He’s a born leader. Once I saw him ride into a bunch of Mexicans whom we suspected of rustling. It was fine to see him. Well, I’m sorry to tell you that we are worried about Don Carlos. Some of his vaqueros came into my yard the other day when I had left Flo alone. She had a bad scare. These vaqueros have been different since Don Carlos sold the ranch. For that matter, I never would have trusted a white woman alone with them. But they are bolder now. Something’s in the wind. They’ve got assurance. They can ride off any night and cross the border."

During the succeeding week Madeline discovered that a good deal of her sympathy for Stillwell in his hunt for the reckless Stewart had insensibly grown to be sympathy for the cowboy. It was rather a paradox, she thought, that opposed to the continual reports of Stewart’s wildness as he caroused from town to town were the continual expressions of good will and faith and hope universally given out by those near her at the ranch. Stillwell loved the cowboy; Florence was fond of him; Alfred liked and admired him, pitied him; the cowboys swore their regard for him the more he disgraced himself. The Mexicans called him El Gran Capitan. Madeline’s personal opinion of Stewart had not changed in the least since the night it had been formed. But certain attributes of his, not clearly defined in her mind, and the gift of his beautiful horse, his valor with the fighting rebels, and all this strange regard for him, especially that of her brother, made her exceedingly regret the cowboy’s present behavior.

Meanwhile Stillwell was so earnest and zealous that one not familiar with the situation would have believed he was trying to find and reclaim his own son. He made several trips to little stations in the valley, and from these he returned with a gloomy face. Madeline got the details from Alfred. Stewart was going from bad to worse—drunk, disorderly, savage, sure to land in the penitentiary. Then came a report that hurried Stillwell off to Rodeo. He returned on the third day, a crushed man. He bad been so bitterly hurt that no one, not even Madeline, could get out of him what had happened. He admitted finding Stewart, failing to influence him; and when the old cattleman got so far he turned purple in the face and talked to himself, as if dazed: "But Gene was drunk. He was drunk, or he couldn’t hev treated old Bill like thet!"

Madeline was stirred with an anger toward the brutal cowboy that was as strong as her sorrow for the loyal old cattleman. And it was when Stillwell gave up that she resolved to take a hand. The persistent faith of Stillwell, his pathetic excuses in the face of what must have been Stewart’s violence, perhaps baseness, actuated her powerfully, gave her new insight into human nature. She honored a faith that remained unshaken. And the strange thought came to her that Stewart must somehow be worthy of such a faith, or he never could have inspired it. Madeline discovered that she wanted to believe that somewhere deep down in the most depraved and sinful wretch upon earth there was some grain of good. She yearned to have the faith in human nature that Stillwell had in Stewart.

She sent Nels, mounted upon his own horse, and leading Majesty, to Rodeo in search of Stewart. Nels had instructions to bring Stewart back to the ranch. In due time Nels returned, leading the roan without a rider.

"Yep, I shore found him," replied Nels, when questioned. "Found him half sobered up. He’d been in a scrap, an’ somebody hed put him to sleep, I guess. Wal, when he seen thet roan hoss he let out a yell an’ grabbed him round the neck. The hoss knowed him, all right. Then Gene hugged the hoss an’ cried—cried like—I never seen no one who cried like he did. I waited awhile, an’ was jest goin’ to say somethin’ to him when he turned on me red-eyed, mad as fire. ’Nels,’ he said, ’I care a hell of a lot fer thet boss, an’ I liked you pretty well, but if you don’t take him away quick I’ll shoot you both.’ Wal, I lit out. I didn’t even git to say howdy to him."

Nels, you think it useless—any attempt to see him—persuade him?" asked Madeline.

"I shore do, Miss Hammond," replied Nels, gravely. "I’ve seen a few sun-blinded an’ locoed an’ snake-poisoned an’ skunk-bitten cow-punchers in my day, but Gene Stewart beats ’em all. He’s shore runnin’ wild fer the divide."

Madeline dismissed Nels, but before he got out of earshot she heard him speak to Stillwell, who awaited him on the porch.

"Bill, put this in your pipe an’ smoke it—none of them scraps Gene has hed was over a woman! It used to be thet when he was drank he’d scrap over every pretty Greaser girl he’d run across. Thet’s why Pat Hawe thinks Gene plugged the strange vaquero who was with little Bonita thet night last fall. Wal, Gene’s scrappin’ now jest to git shot up hisself, for some reason thet only God Almighty knows."

Nels’s story of how Stewart wept over his horse influenced Madeline powerfully. Her next move was to persuade Alfred to see if he could not do better with this doggedly bent cowboy. Alfred needed only a word of persuasion, for he said he had considered going to Rodeo of his own accord. He went, and returned alone.

"Majesty, I can’t explain Stewart’s singular actions," said Alfred. "I saw him, talked with him. He knew me, but nothing I said appeared to get to him. He has changed terribly. I fancy his once magnificent strength is breaking. It—it actually hurt me to look at him. I couldn’t have fetched him back here—not as he is now. I heard all about him, and if he isn’t downright out of his mind he’s hell-bent, as Bill says, on getting killed. Some of his escapades are—are not for your ears. Bill did all any man could do for another. We’ve all done our best for Stewart. If you’d been given a chance perhaps you could have saved him. But it’s too late. Put it out of mind now, dear."

Madeline, however, did not forget nor give it up. If she had forgotten or surrendered, she felt that she would have been relinquishing infinitely more than hope to aid one ruined man. But she was at a loss to know what further steps to take. Days passed, and each one brought additional gossip of Stewart’s headlong career toward the Yuma penitentiary. For he had crossed the line into Cochise County, Arizona, where sheriffs kept a stricter observance of law. Finally a letter came from a friend of Nels’s in Chiricahua saying that Stewart had been hurt in a brawl there. His hurt was not serious, but it would probably keep him quiet long enough to get sober, and this opportunity, Nels’s informant said, would be a good one for Stewart’s friends to take him home before he got locked up. This epistle inclosed a letter to Stewart from his sister. Evidently, it had been found upon him. It told a story of illness and made an appeal for aid. Nels’s friend forwarded this letter without Stewart’s knowledge, thinking Stillwell might care to help Stewart’s family. Stewart had no money, he said.

The sister’s letter found its way to Madeline. She read it, tears in her eyes. It told Madeline much more than its brief story of illness and poverty and wonder why Gene had not written home for so long. It told of motherly love, sisterly love, brotherly love—dear family ties that had not been broken. It spoke of pride in this El Capitan brother who had become famous. It was signed "your loving sister Letty."

Not improbably, Madeline revolved in mind, this letter was one reason for Stewart’s headstrong, long-continued abasement. It had been received too late—after he had squandered the money that would have meant so much to mother and sister. Be that as it might, Madeline immediately sent a bank-draft to Stewart’s sister with a letter explaining that the money was drawn in advance on Stewart’s salary. This done, she impulsively determined to go to Chiricahua herself.

The horseback-rides Madeline had taken to this little Arizona hamlet had tried her endurance to the utmost; but the journey by automobile, except for some rocky bits of road and sandy stretches, was comfortable, and a matter of only a few hours. The big touring-car was still a kind of seventh wonder to the Mexicans and cowboys; not that automobiles were very new and strange, but because this one was such an enormous machine and capable of greater speed than an express-train. The chauffeur who had arrived with the car found his situation among the jealous cowboys somewhat far removed from a bed of roses. He had been induced to remain long enough to teach the operating and mechanical technique of the car. And choice fell upon Link Stevens, for the simple reason that of all the cowboys he was the only one with any knack for mechanics. Now Link had been a hard-riding, hard-driving cowboy, and that winter he had sustained an injury to his leg, caused by a bad fall, and was unable to sit his horse. This had been gall and wormwood to him. But when the big white automobile came and he was elected to drive it, life was once more worth living for him. But all the other cowboys regarded Link and his machine as some correlated species of demon. They were deathly afraid of both.

It was for this reason that Nels, when Madeline asked him to accompany her to Chiricahua, replied, reluctantly, that he would rather follow on his horse. However, she prevailed over his hesitancy, and with Florence also in the car they set out. For miles and miles the valley road was smooth, hard-packed, and slightly downhill. And when speeding was perfectly safe, Madeline was not averse to it. The grassy plain sailed backward in gray sheets, and the little dot in the valley grew larger and larger. From time to time Link glanced round at unhappy Nels, whose eyes were wild and whose hands clutched his seat. While the car was crossing the sandy and rocky places, going slowly, Nels appeared to breathe easier. And when it stopped in the wide, dusty street of Chiricahua Nels gladly tumbled out.

"Nels, we shall wait here in the car while you find Stewart," said Madeline.

"Miss Hammond, I reckon Gene’ll run when he sees us, if he’s able to run," replied Nels. "Wal, I’ll go find him an’ make up my mind then what we’d better do."

Nels crossed the railroad track and disappeared behind the low, flat houses. After a little time he reappeared and hurried up to the car. Madeline felt his gray gaze searching her face.

"Miss Hammond, I found him," said Nels. "He was sleepin’. I woke him. He’s sober an’ not bad hurt; but I don’t believe you ought to see him. Mebbe Florence -"

"Nels, I want to see him myself. Why not? What did he say when you told him I was here?"

"Shore I didn’t tell him that. I jest says, ’Hullo, Gene!’ an’ he says, ’My Gawd! Nels! mebbe I ain’t glad to see a human bein’.’ He asked me who was with me, an’ I told him Link an’ some friends. I said I’d fetch them in. He hollered at thet. But I went, anyway. Now, if you really will see him, Miss Hammond, it’s a good chance. But shore it’s a touchy matter, an’ you’ll be some sick at sight of him. He’s layin’ in a Greaser hole over here. Likely the Greasers hev been kind to him. But they’re shore a poor lot."

Madeline did not hesitate a moment.

"Thank you, Nels. Take me at once. Come, Florence."

They left the car, now surrounded by gaping-eyed Mexican children, and crossed the dusty space to a narrow lane between red adobe walls. Passing by several houses, Nels stopped at the door of what appeared to be an alleyway leading back. I was filthy.

"He’s in there, around thet first corner. It’s a patio, open an’ sunny. An’, Miss Hammond, if you don’t mind, I’ll wait here for you. I reckon Gene wouldn’t like any fellers around when he sees you girls."

It was that which made Madeline hesitate then and go forward slowly. She had given no thought at all to what Stewart might feel when suddenly surprised by her presence.

"Florence, you wait also," said Madeline, at the doorway, and turned in alone.

And she had stepped into a broken-down patio littered with alfalfa straw and debris, all clear in the sunlight. Upon a bench, back toward her, sat a man looking out through the rents in the broken wall. He had not heard her. The place was not quite so filthy and stifling as the passages Madeline had come through to get there. Then she saw that it had been used as a corral. A rat ran boldly across the dirt floor. The air swarmed with flies, which the man brushed at with weary hand. Madeline did not recognize Stewart. The side of his face exposed to her gaze was black, bruised, bearded. His clothes were ragged and soiled. There were bits of alfalfa in his hair. His shoulders sagged. He made a wretched and hopeless figure sitting there. Madeline divined something of why Nels shrank from being present.

"Mr. Stewart. It is I, Miss Hammond, come to see you," she said.

He grew suddenly perfectly motionless, as if he had been changed to stone. She repeated her greeting.

His body jerked. He moved violently as if instinctively to turn and face this intruder; but a more violent movement checked him.

Madeline waited. How singular that this ruined cowboy had pride which kept him from showing his face! And was it not shame more than pride?

"Mr. Stewart, I have come to talk with you, if you will let me."

"Go away," he muttered.

"Mr. Stewart!" she began, with involuntary hauteur. But instantly she corrected herself, became deliberate and cool, for she saw that she might fail to be even heard by this man. "I have come to help you. Will you let me?"

"For God’s sake! You—you—" he choked over the words. "Go away!"

"Stewart, perhaps it was for God’s sake that I came," said Madeline, gently. "Surely it was for yours—and your sister’s -" Madeline bit her tongue, for she had not meant to betray her knowledge of Letty.

He groaned, and, staggering up to the broken wall, he leaned there with his face hidden. Madeline reflected that perhaps the slip of speech had been well.

"Stewart, please let me say what I have to say?"

He was silent. And she gathered courage and inspiration.

"Stillwell is deeply hurt, deeply grieved that he could not turn you back from this—this fatal course. My brother is also. They wanted to help you. And so do I. I have come, thinking somehow I might succeed where they have failed. Nels brought your sister’s letter. I—I read it. I was only the more determined to try to help you, and indirectly help your mother and Letty. Stewart, we want you to come to the ranch. Stillwell needs you for his foreman. The position is open to you, and you can name your salary. Both Al and Stillwell are worried about Don Carlos, the vaqueros, and the raids down along the border. My cowboys are without a capable leader. Will you come?"

"No," he answered.

"But Stillwell wants you so badly."


"Stewart, I want you to come."


His replies had been hoarse, loud, furious. They disconcerted Madeline, and she paused, trying to think of a way to proceed. Stewart staggered away from the wall, and, falling upon the bench, he hid his face in his hands. All his motions, like his speech, had been violent.

"Will you please go away?" he asked.

"Stewart, certainly I cannot remain here longer if you insist upon my going. But why not listen to me when I want so much to help you? Why?"

"I’m a damned blackguard," he burst out. "But I was a gentleman once, and I’m not so low that I can stand for you seeing me here."

"When I made up my mind to help you I made it up to see you wherever you were. Stewart, come away, come back with us to the ranch. You are in a bad condition now. Everything looks black to you. But that will pass. When you are among friends again you will get well. You will he your old self. The very fact that you were once a gentleman, that you come of good family, makes you owe so much more to yourself. Why, Stewart, think how young you are! It is a shame to waste your life. Come back with me."

"Miss Hammond, this was my last plunge," he replied, despondently. "It’s too late."

"Oh no, it is not so bad as that."

"It’s too late."

"At least make an effort, Stewart. Try!"

"No. There’s no use. I’m done for. Please leave me—thank you for -"

He had been savage, then sullen, and now he was grim. Madeline all but lost power to resist his strange, deadly, cold finality. No doubt he knew he was doomed. Yet something halted her—held her even as she took a backward step. And she became conscious of a subtle change in her own feeling. She had come into that squalid hole, Madeline Hammond, earnest enough, kind enough in her own intentions; but she had been almost imperious—a woman habitually, proudly used to being obeyed. She divined that all the pride, blue blood, wealth, culture, distinction, all the impersonal condescending persuasion, all the fatuous philanthropy on earth would not avail to turn this man a single hair’s-breadth from his downward career to destruction. Her coming had terribly augmented his bitter hate of himself. She was going to fail to help him. She experienced a sensation of impotence that amounted almost to distress. The situation assumed a tragic keenness. She had set forth to reverse the tide of a wild cowboy’s fortunes; she faced the swift wasting of his life, the damnation of his soul. The subtle consciousness of change in her was the birth of that faith she had revered in Stillwell. And all at once she became merely a woman, brave and sweet and indomitable.

"Stewart, look at me," she said.

He shuddered. She advanced and laid a hand on his bent shoulder. Under the light touch he appeared to sink.

"Look at me," she repeated.

But he could not lift his head. He was abject, crushed. He dared not show his swollen, blackened face. His fierce, cramped posture revealed more than his features might have shown; it betrayed the torturing shame of a man of pride and passion, a man who had been confronted in his degradation by the woman he had dared to enshrine in his heart. It betrayed his love.

"Listen, then," went on Madeline, and her voice was unsteady. "Listen to me, Stewart. The greatest men are those who have fallen deepest into the mire, sinned most, suffered most, and then have fought their evil natures and conquered. I think you can shake off this desperate mood and be a man."

"No!" he cried.

"Listen to me again. Somehow I know you’re worthy of Stillwell’s love. Will you come back with us—for his sake?"

"No. It’s too late, I tell you."

"Stewart, the best thing in life is faith in human nature. I have faith in you. I believe yen are worth it."

"You’re only kind and good—saying that. You can’t mean it."

"I mean it with all my heart," she replied, a sudden rich warmth suffusing her body as she saw the first sign of his softening. "Will you come back—if not for your own sake or Stillwell’s— then for mine?"

"What am I to such a woman as you?"

"A man in trouble, Stewart. But I have come to help you, to show my faith in you."

"If I believed that I might try," he said.

"Listen," she began, softly, hurriedly. "My word is not lightly given. Let it prove my faith in you. Look at me now and say you will come."

He heaved up his big frame as if trying to cast off a giant’s burden, and then slowly he turned toward her. His face was a blotched and terrible thing. The physical brutalizing marks were there, and at that instant all that appeared human to Madeline was the dawning in dead, furnace-like eyes of a beautiful light.

"I’ll come," he whispered, huskily. "Give me a few days to straighten up, then I’ll come."


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Chicago: Zane Grey, "VIII El Capitan," Light of the Western Stars, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in Light of the Western Stars (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1913), Original Sources, accessed February 4, 2023,

MLA: Grey, Zane. "VIII El Capitan." Light of the Western Stars, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in Light of the Western Stars, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1913, Original Sources. 4 Feb. 2023.

Harvard: Grey, Z, 'VIII El Capitan' in Light of the Western Stars, ed. . cited in 1913, Light of the Western Stars, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 4 February 2023, from