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Lone Star Ranger, The

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<SPAN name="link2HCH0008" id="link2HCH0008"> <!-- H2 anchor --> </SPAN> </p> <div style="height: 4em;"> <br /><br /><br /><br /> </div> <h2> CHAPTER VIII </h2> <p> What a contrast, Duane thought, the evening of that day presented to the state of his soul! </p> <p> The sunset lingered in golden glory over the distant Mexican mountains; twilight came slowly; a faint breeze blew from the river cool and sweet; the late cooing of a dove and the tinkle of a cowbell were the only sounds; a serene and tranquil peace lay over the valley. </p> <p> Inside Duane's body there was strife. This third facing of a desperate man had thrown him off his balance. It had not been fatal, but it threatened so much. The better side of his nature seemed to urge him to die rather than to go on fighting or opposing ignorant, unfortunate, savage men. But the perversity of him was so great that it dwarfed reason, conscience. He could not resist it. He felt something dying in him. He suffered. Hope seemed far away. Despair had seized upon him and was driving him into a reckless mood when he thought of Jennie. </p> <p> He had forgotten her. He had forgotten that he had promised to save her. He had forgotten that he meant to snuff out as many lives as might stand between her and freedom. The very remembrance sheered off his morbid introspection. She made a difference. How strange for him to realize that! He felt grateful to her. He had been forced into outlawry; she had been stolen from her people and carried into captivity. They had met in the river fastness, he to instil hope into her despairing life, she to be the means, perhaps, of keeping him from sinking to the level of her captors. He became conscious of a strong and beating desire to see her, talk with her. </p> <p> These thoughts had run through his mind while on his way to Mrs. Bland's house. He had let Euchre go on ahead because he wanted more time to compose himself. Darkness had about set in when he reached his destination. There was no light in the house. Mrs. Bland was waiting for him on the porch. </p> <p> She embraced him, and the sudden, violent, unfamiliar contact sent such a shock through him that he all but forgot the deep game he was playing. She, however, in her agitation did not notice his shrinking. From her embrace and the tender, incoherent words that flowed with it he gathered that Euchre had acquainted her of his action with Black. </p> <p> "He might have killed you," she whispered, more clearly; and if Duane had ever heard love in a voice he heard it then. It softened him. After all, she was a woman, weak, fated through her nature, unfortunate in her experience of life, doomed to unhappiness and tragedy. He met her advance so far that he returned the embrace and kissed her. Emotion such as she showed would have made any woman sweet, and she had a certain charm. It was easy, even pleasant, to kiss her; but Duane resolved that, whatever her abandonment might become, he would not go further than the lie she made him act. </p> <p> "Buck, you love me?" she whispered. </p> <p> "Yes&mdash;yes," he burst out, eager to get it over, and even as he spoke he caught the pale gleam of Jennie's face through the window. He felt a shame he was glad she could not see. Did she remember that she had promised not to misunderstand any action of his? What did she think of him, seeing him out there in the dusk with this bold woman in his arms? Somehow that dim sight of Jennie's pale face, the big dark eyes, thrilled him, inspired him to his hard task of the present. </p> <p> "Listen, dear," he said to the woman, and he meant his words for the girl. "I'm going to take you away from this outlaw den if I have to kill Bland, Alloway, Rugg&mdash;anybody who stands in my path. You were dragged here. You are good&mdash;I know it. There's happiness for you somewhere&mdash;a home among good people who will care for you. Just wait till&mdash;" </p> <p> His voice trailed off and failed from excess of emotion. Kate Bland closed her eyes and leaned her head on his breast. Duane felt her heart beat against his, and conscience smote him a keen blow. If she loved him so much! But memory and understanding of her character hardened him again, and he gave her such commiseration as was due her sex, and no more. </p> <p> "Boy, that's good of you," she whispered, "but it's too late. I'm done for. I can't leave Bland. All I ask is that you love me a little and stop your gun-throwing." </p> <p> The moon had risen over the eastern bulge of dark mountain, and now the valley was flooded with mellow light, and shadows of cottonwoods wavered against the silver. </p> <p> Suddenly the clip-clop, clip-clop of hoofs caused Duane to raise his head and listen. Horses were coming down the road from the head of the valley. The hour was unusual for riders to come in. Presently the narrow, moonlit lane was crossed at its far end by black moving objects. Two horses Duane discerned. </p> <p> "It's Bland!" whispered the woman, grasping Duane with shaking hands. "You must run! No, he'd see you. That 'd be worse. It's Bland! I know his horse's trot." </p> <p> "But you said he wouldn't mind my calling here," protested Duane. "Euchre's with me. It'll be all right." </p> <p> "Maybe so," she replied, with visible effort at self-control. Manifestly she had a great fear of Bland. "If I could only think!" </p> <p> Then she dragged Duane to the door, pushed him in. </p> <p> "Euchre, come out with me! Duane, you stay with the girl! I'll tell Bland you're in love with her. Jen, if you give us away I'll wring your neck." </p> <p> The swift action and fierce whisper told Duane that Mrs. Bland was herself again. Duane stepped close to Jennie, who stood near the window. Neither spoke, but her hands were outstretched to meet his own. They were small, trembling hands, cold as ice. He held them close, trying to convey what he felt&mdash;that he would protect her. She leaned against him, and they looked out of the window. Duane felt calm and sure of himself. His most pronounced feeling besides that for the frightened girl was a curiosity as to how Mrs. Bland would rise to the occasion. He saw the riders dismount down the lane and wearily come forward. A boy led away the horses. Euchre, the old fox, was talking loud and with remarkable ease, considering what he claimed was his natural cowardice. </p> <p> "&mdash;that was way back in the sixties, about the time of the war," he was saying. "Rustlin' cattle wasn't nuthin' then to what it is now. An' times is rougher these days. This gun-throwin' has come to be a disease. Men have an itch for the draw same as they used to have fer poker. The only real gambler outside of greasers we ever had here was Bill, an' I presume Bill is burnin' now." </p> <p> The approaching outlaws, hearing voices, halted a rod or so from the porch. Then Mrs. Bland uttered an exclamation, ostensibly meant to express surprise, and hurried out to meet them. She greeted her husband warmly and gave welcome to the other man. Duane could not see well enough in the shadow to recognize Bland's companion, but he believed it was Alloway. </p> <p> "Dog-tired we are and starved," said Bland, heavily. "Who's here with you?" </p> <p> "That's Euchre on the porch. Duane is inside at the window with Jen," replied Mrs. Bland. </p> <p> "Duane!" he exclaimed. Then he whispered low&mdash;something Duane could not catch. </p> <p> "Why, I asked him to come," said the chief's wife. She spoke easily and naturally and made no change in tone. "Jen has been ailing. She gets thinner and whiter every day. Duane came here one day with Euchre, saw Jen, and went loony over her pretty face, same as all you men. So I let him come." </p> <p> Bland cursed low and deep under his breath. The other man made a violent action of some kind and apparently was quieted by a restraining hand. </p> <p> "Kate, you let Duane make love to Jennie?" queried Bland, incredulously. </p> <p> "Yes, I did," replied the wife, stubbornly. "Why not? Jen's in love with him. If he takes her away and marries her she can be a decent woman." </p> <p> Bland kept silent a moment, then his laugh pealed out loud and harsh. </p> <p> "Chess, did you get that? Well, by God! what do you think of my wife?" </p> <p> "She's lyin' or she's crazy," replied Alloway, and his voice carried an unpleasant ring. </p> <p> Mrs. Bland promptly and indignantly told her husband's lieutenant to keep his mouth shut. </p> <p> "Ho, ho, ho!" rolled out Bland's laugh. </p> <p> Then he led the way to the porch, his spurs clinking, the weapons he was carrying rattling, and he flopped down on a bench. </p> <p> "How are you, boss?" asked Euchre. </p> <p> "Hello, old man. I'm well, but all in." </p> <p> Alloway slowly walked on to the porch and leaned against the rail. He answered Euchre's greeting with a nod. Then he stood there a dark, silent figure. </p> <p> Mrs. Bland's full voice in eager questioning had a tendency to ease the situation. Bland replied briefly to her, reporting a remarkably successful trip. </p> <p> Duane thought it time to show himself. He had a feeling that Bland and Alloway would let him go for the moment. They were plainly non-plussed, and Alloway seemed sullen, brooding. "Jennie," whispered Duane, "that was clever of Mrs. Bland. We'll keep up the deception. Any day now be ready!" </p> <p> She pressed close to him, and a barely audible "Hurry!" came breathing into his ear. </p> <p> "Good night, Jennie," he said, aloud. "Hope you feel better to-morrow." </p> <p> Then he stepped out into the moonlight and spoke. Bland returned the greeting, and, though he was not amiable, he did not show resentment. </p> <p> "Met Jasper as I rode in," said Bland, presently. "He told me you made Bill Black mad, and there's liable to be a fight. What did you go off the handle about?" </p> <p> Duane explained the incident. "I'm sorry I happened to be there," he went on. "It wasn't my business." </p> <p> "Scurvy trick that 'd been," muttered Bland. "You did right. All the same, Duane, I want you to stop quarreling with my men. If you were one of us&mdash;that'd be different. I can't keep my men from fighting. But I'm not called on to let an outsider hang around my camp and plug my rustlers." </p> <p> "I guess I'll have to be hitting the trail for somewhere," said Duane. </p> <p> "Why not join my band? You've got a bad start already, Duane, and if I know this border you'll never be a respectable citizen again. You're a born killer. I know every bad man on this frontier. More than one of them have told me that something exploded in their brain, and when sense came back there lay another dead man. It's not so with me. I've done a little shooting, too, but I never wanted to kill another man just to rid myself of the last one. My dead men don't sit on my chest at night. That's the gun-fighter's trouble. He's crazy. He has to kill a new man&mdash;he's driven to it to forget the last one." </p> <p> "But I'm no gun-fighter," protested Duane. "Circumstances made me&mdash;" </p> <p> "No doubt," interrupted Bland, with a laugh. "Circumstances made me a rustler. You don't know yourself. You're young; you've got a temper; your father was one of the most dangerous men Texas ever had. I don't see any other career for you. Instead of going it alone&mdash;a lone wolf, as the Texans say&mdash;why not make friends with other outlaws? You'll live longer." </p> <p> Euchre squirmed in his seat. </p> <p> "Boss, I've been givin' the boy egzactly thet same line of talk. Thet's why I took him in to bunk with me. If he makes pards among us there won't be any more trouble. An' he'd be a grand feller fer the gang. I've seen Wild Bill Hickok throw a gun, an' Billy the Kid, an' Hardin, an' Chess here&mdash;all the fastest men on the border. An' with apologies to present company, I'm here to say Duane has them all skinned. His draw is different. You can't see how he does it." </p> <p> Euchre's admiring praise served to create an effective little silence. Alloway shifted uneasily on his feet, his spurs jangling faintly, and did not lift his head. Bland seemed thoughtful. </p> <p> "That's about the only qualification I have to make me eligible for your band," said Duane, easily. </p> <p> "It's good enough," replied Bland, shortly. "Will you consider the idea?" </p> <p> "I'll think it over. Good night." </p> <p> He left the group, followed by Euchre. When they reached the end of the lane, and before they had exchanged a word, Bland called Euchre back. Duane proceeded slowly along the moonlit road to the cabin and sat down under the cottonwoods to wait for Euchre. The night was intense and quiet, a low hum of insects giving the effect of a congestion of life. The beauty of the soaring moon, the ebony canons of shadow under the mountain, the melancholy serenity of the perfect night, made Duane shudder in the realization of how far aloof he now was from enjoyment of these things. Never again so long as he lived could he be natural. His mind was clouded. His eye and ear henceforth must register impressions of nature, but the joy of them had fled. </p> <p> Still, as he sat there with a foreboding of more and darker work ahead of him there was yet a strange sweetness left to him, and it lay in thought of Jennie. The pressure of her cold little hands lingered in his. He did not think of her as a woman, and he did not analyze his feelings. He just had vague, dreamy thoughts and imaginations that were interspersed in the constant and stern revolving of plans to save her. </p> <p> A shuffling step roused him. Euchre's dark figure came crossing the moonlit grass under the cottonwoods. The moment the outlaw reached him Duane saw that he was laboring under great excitement. It scarcely affected Duane. He seemed to be acquiring patience, calmness, strength. </p> <p> "Bland kept you pretty long," he said. </p> <p> "Wait till I git my breath," replied Euchre. He sat silent a little while, fanning himself with a sombrero, though the night was cool, and then he went into the cabin to return presently with a lighted pipe. </p> <p> "Fine night," he said; and his tone further acquainted Duane with Euchre's quaint humor. "Fine night for love-affairs, by gum!" </p> <p> "I'd noticed that," rejoined Duane, dryly. </p> <p> "Wal, I'm a son of a gun if I didn't stand an' watch Bland choke his wife till her tongue stuck out an' she got black in the face." </p> <p> "No!" ejaculated Duane. </p> <p> "Hope to die if I didn't. Buck, listen to this here yarn. When I got back to the porch I seen Bland was wakin' up. He'd been too fagged out to figger much. Alloway an' Kate had gone in the house, where they lit up the lamps. I heard Kate's high voice, but Alloway never chirped. He's not the talkin' kind, an' he's damn dangerous when he's thet way. Bland asked me some questions right from the shoulder. I was ready for them, an' I swore the moon was green cheese. He was satisfied. Bland always trusted me, an' liked me, too, I reckon. I hated to lie black thet way. But he's a hard man with bad intentions toward Jennie, an' I'd double-cross him any day. </p> <p> "Then we went into the house. Jennie had gone to her little room, an' Bland called her to come out. She said she was undressin'. An' he ordered her to put her clothes back on. Then, Buck, his next move was some surprisin'. He deliberately thronged a gun on Kate. Yes sir, he pointed his big blue Colt right at her, an' he says: </p> <p> "'I've a mind to blow out your brains.' </p> <p> "'Go ahead,' says Kate, cool as could be. </p> <p> "'You lied to me,' he roars. </p> <p> "Kate laughed in his face. Bland slammed the gun down an' made a grab fer her. She fought him, but wasn't a match fer him, an' he got her by the throat. He choked her till I thought she was strangled. Alloway made him stop. She flopped down on the bed an' gasped fer a while. When she come to them hardshelled cusses went after her, trying to make her give herself away. I think Bland was jealous. He suspected she'd got thick with you an' was foolin' him. I reckon thet's a sore feelin' fer a man to have&mdash;to guess pretty nice, but not to BE sure. Bland gave it up after a while. An' then he cussed an' raved at her. One sayin' of his is worth pinnin' in your sombrero: 'It ain't nuthin' to kill a man. I don't need much fer thet. But I want to KNOW, you hussy!' </p> <p> "Then he went in an' dragged poor Jen out. She'd had time to dress. He was so mad he hurt her sore leg. You know Jen got thet injury fightin' off one of them devils in the dark. An' when I seen Bland twist her&mdash;hurt her&mdash;I had a queer hot feelin' deep down in me, an' fer the only time in my life I wished I was a gun-fighter. </p> <p> "Wal, Jen amazed me. She was whiter'n a sheet, an' her eyes were big and stary, but she had nerve. Fust time I ever seen her show any. </p> <p> "'Jennie,' he said, 'my wife said Duane came here to see you. I believe she's lyin'. I think she's been carryin' on with him, an' I want to KNOW. If she's been an' you tell me the truth I'll let you go. I'll send you out to Huntsville, where you can communicate with your friends. I'll give you money.' </p> <p> "Thet must hev been a hell of a minnit fer Kate Bland. If evet I seen death in a man's eye I seen it in Bland's. He loves her. Thet's the strange part of it. </p> <p> "'Has Duane been comin' here to see my wife?' Bland asked, fierce-like. </p> <p> "'No,' said Jennie. </p> <p> "'He's been after you?' </p> <p> "'Yes.' </p> <p> "'He has fallen in love with you? Kate said thet.' </p> <p> "'I&mdash;I'm not&mdash;I don't know&mdash;he hasn't told me.' </p> <p> "'But you're in love with him?' </p> <p> "'Yes,' she said; an', Buck, if you only could have seen her! She thronged up her head, an' her eyes were full of fire. Bland seemed dazed at sight of her. An' Alloway, why, thet little skunk of an outlaw cried right out. He was hit plumb center. He's in love with Jen. An' the look of her then was enough to make any feller quit. He jest slunk out of the room. I told you, mebbe, thet he'd been tryin' to git Bland to marry Jen to him. So even a tough like Alloway can love a woman! </p> <p> "Bland stamped up an' down the room. He sure was dyin' hard. </p> <p> "'Jennie,' he said, once more turnin' to her. 'You swear in fear of your life thet you're tellin' truth. Kate's not in love with Duane? She's let him come to see you? There's been nuthin' between them?' </p> <p> "'No. I swear,' answered Jennie; an' Bland sat down like a man licked. </p> <p> "'Go to bed, you white-faced&mdash;' Bland choked on some word or other&mdash;a bad one, I reckon&mdash;an' he positively shook in his chair. </p> <p> "Jennie went then, an' Kate began to have hysterics. An' your Uncle Euchre ducked his nut out of the door an' come home." </p> <p> Duane did not have a word to say at the end of Euchre's long harangue. He experienced relief. As a matter of fact, he had expected a good deal worse. He thrilled at the thought of Jennie perjuring herself to save that abandoned woman. What mysteries these feminine creatures were! </p> <p> "Wal, there's where our little deal stands now," resumed Euchre, meditatively. "You know, Buck, as well as me thet if you'd been some feller who hadn't shown he was a wonder with a gun you'd now be full of lead. If you'd happen to kill Bland an' Alloway, I reckon you'd be as safe on this here border as you would in Santone. Such is gun fame in this land of the draw." </p> <p>
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