Beelingo.com

English Audio Books

Lone Star Ranger, The

SPONSORED LINKS
<SPAN name="link2HCH0013" id="link2HCH0013"> <!-- H2 anchor --> </SPAN> </p> <div style="height: 4em;"> <br /><br /><br /><br /> </div> <h2> CHAPTER XIII </h2> <p> How long Duane was traveling out of that region he never knew. But he reached familiar country and found a rancher who had before befriended him. Here his arm was attended to; he had food and sleep; and in a couple of weeks he was himself again. </p> <p> When the time came for Duane to ride away on his endless trail his friend reluctantly imparted the information that some thirty miles south, near the village of Shirley, there was posted at a certain cross-road a reward for Buck Duane dead or alive. Duane had heard of such notices, but he had never seen one. His friend's reluctance and refusal to state for what particular deed this reward was offered roused Duane's curiosity. He had never been any closer to Shirley than this rancher's home. Doubtless some post-office burglary, some gun-shooting scrape had been attributed to him. And he had been accused of worse deeds. Abruptly Duane decided to ride over there and find out who wanted him dead or alive, and why. </p> <p> As he started south on the road he reflected that this was the first time he had ever deliberately hunted trouble. Introspection awarded him this knowledge; during that last terrible flight on the lower Nueces and while he lay abed recuperating he had changed. A fixed, immutable, hopeless bitterness abided with him. He had reached the end of his rope. All the power of his mind and soul were unavailable to turn him back from his fate. </p> <p> That fate was to become an outlaw in every sense of the term, to be what he was credited with being&mdash;that is to say, to embrace evil. He had never committed a crime. He wondered now was crime close to him? He reasoned finally that the desperation of crime had been forced upon him, if not its motive; and that if driven, there was no limit to his possibilities. He understood now many of the hitherto inexplicable actions of certain noted outlaws&mdash;why they had returned to the scene of the crime that had outlawed them; why they took such strangely fatal chances; why life was no more to them than a breath of wind; why they rode straight into the jaws of death to confront wronged men or hunting rangers, vigilantes, to laugh in their very faces. It was such bitterness as this that drove these men. </p> <p> Toward afternoon, from the top of a long hill, Duane saw the green fields and trees and shining roofs of a town he considered must be Shirley. And at the bottom of the hill he came upon an intersecting road. There was a placard nailed on the crossroad sign-post. Duane drew rein near it and leaned close to read the faded print. $1000 REWARD FOR BUCK DUANE DEAD OR ALIVE. Peering closer to read the finer, more faded print, Duane learned that he was wanted for the murder of Mrs. Jeff Aiken at her ranch near Shirley. The month September was named, but the date was illegible. The reward was offered by the woman's husband, whose name appeared with that of a sheriff's at the bottom of the placard. </p> <p> Duane read the thing twice. When he straightened he was sick with the horror of his fate, wild with passion at those misguided fools who could believe that he had harmed a woman. Then he remembered Kate Bland, and, as always when she returned to him, he quaked inwardly. Years before word had gone abroad that he had killed her, and so it was easy for men wanting to fix a crime to name him. Perhaps it had been done often. Probably he bore on his shoulders a burden of numberless crimes. </p> <p> A dark, passionate fury possessed him. It shook him like a storm shakes the oak. When it passed, leaving him cold, with clouded brow and piercing eye, his mind was set. Spurring his horse, he rode straight toward the village. </p> <p> Shirley appeared to be a large, pretentious country town. A branch of some railroad terminated there. The main street was wide, bordered by trees and commodious houses, and many of the stores were of brick. A large plaza shaded by giant cottonwood trees occupied a central location. </p> <p> Duane pulled his running horse and halted him, plunging and snorting, before a group of idle men who lounged on benches in the shade of a spreading cottonwood. How many times had Duane seen just that kind of lazy shirt-sleeved Texas group! Not often, however, had he seen such placid, lolling, good-natured men change their expression, their attitude so swiftly. His advent apparently was momentous. They evidently took him for an unusual visitor. So far as Duane could tell, not one of them recognized him, had a hint of his identity. </p> <p> He slid off his horse and threw the bridle. </p> <p> "I'm Buck Duane," he said. "I saw that placard&mdash;out there on a sign-post. It's a damn lie! Somebody find this man Jeff Aiken. I want to see him." </p> <p> His announcement was taken in absolute silence. That was the only effect he noted, for he avoided looking at these villagers. The reason was simple enough; Duane felt himself overcome with emotion. There were tears in his eyes. He sat down on a bench, put his elbows on his knees and his hands to his face. For once he had absolutely no concern for his fate. This ignominy was the last straw. </p> <p> Presently, however, he became aware of some kind of commotion among these villagers. He heard whisperings, low, hoarse voices, then the shuffle of rapid feet moving away. All at once a violent hand jerked his gun from its holster. When Duane rose a gaunt man, livid of face, shaking like a leaf, confronted him with his own gun. </p> <p> "Hands up, thar, you Buck Duane!" he roared, waving the gun. </p> <p> That appeared to be the cue for pandemonium to break loose. Duane opened his lips to speak, but if he had yelled at the top of his lungs he could not have made himself heard. In weary disgust he looked at the gaunt man, and then at the others, who were working themselves into a frenzy. He made no move, however, to hold up his hands. The villagers surrounded him, emboldened by finding him now unarmed. Then several men lay hold of his arms and pinioned them behind his back. Resistance was useless even if Duane had had the spirit. Some one of them fetched his halter from his saddle, and with this they bound him helpless. </p> <p> People were running now from the street, the stores, the houses. Old men, cowboys, clerks, boys, ranchers came on the trot. The crowd grew. The increasing clamor began to attract women as well as men. A group of girls ran up, then hung back in fright and pity. </p> <p> The presence of cowboys made a difference. They split up the crowd, got to Duane, and lay hold of him with rough, businesslike hands. One of them lifted his fists and roared at the frenzied mob to fall back, to stop the racket. He beat them back into a circle; but it was some little time before the hubbub quieted down so a voice could be heard. </p> <p> "Shut up, will you-all?" he was yelling. "Give us a chance to hear somethin'. Easy now&mdash;soho. There ain't nobody goin' to be hurt. Thet's right; everybody quiet now. Let's see what's come off." </p> <p> This cowboy, evidently one of authority, or at least one of strong personality, turned to the gaunt man, who still waved Duane's gun. </p> <p> "Abe, put the gun down," he said. "It might go off. Here, give it to me. Now, what's wrong? Who's this roped gent, an' what's he done?" </p> <p> The gaunt fellow, who appeared now about to collapse, lifted a shaking hand and pointed. </p> <p> "Thet thar feller&mdash;he's Buck Duane!" he panted. </p> <p> An angry murmur ran through the surrounding crowd. </p> <p> "The rope! The rope! Throw it over a branch! String him up!" cried an excited villager. </p> <p> "Buck Duane! Buck Duane!" </p> <p> "Hang him!" </p> <p> The cowboy silenced these cries. </p> <p> "Abe, how do you know this fellow is Buck Duane?" he asked, sharply. </p> <p> "Why&mdash;he said so," replied the man called Abe. </p> <p> "What!" came the exclamation, incredulously. </p> <p> "It's a tarnal fact," panted Abe, waving his hands importantly. He was an old man and appeared to be carried away with the significance of his deed. "He like to rid' his hoss right over us-all. Then he jumped off, says he was Buck Duane, an' he wanted to see Jeff Aiken bad." </p> <p> This speech caused a second commotion as noisy though not so enduring as the first. When the cowboy, assisted by a couple of his mates, had restored order again some one had slipped the noose-end of Duane's rope over his head. </p> <p> "Up with him!" screeched a wild-eyed youth. </p> <p> The mob surged closer was shoved back by the cowboys. </p> <p> "Abe, if you ain't drunk or crazy tell thet over," ordered Abe's interlocutor. </p> <p> With some show of resentment and more of dignity Abe reiterated his former statement. </p> <p> "If he's Buck Duane how'n hell did you get hold of his gun?" bluntly queried the cowboy. </p> <p> "Why&mdash;he set down thar&mdash;an' he kind of hid his face on his hand. An' I grabbed his gun an' got the drop on him." </p> <p> What the cowboy thought of this was expressed in a laugh. His mates likewise grinned broadly. Then the leader turned to Duane. </p> <p> "Stranger, I reckon you'd better speak up for yourself," he said. </p> <p> That stilled the crowd as no command had done. </p> <p> "I'm Buck Duane, all right." said Duane, quietly. "It was this way&mdash;" </p> <p> The big cowboy seemed to vibrate with a shock. All the ruddy warmth left his face; his jaw began to bulge; the corded veins in his neck stood out in knots. In an instant he had a hard, stern, strange look. He shot out a powerful hand that fastened in the front of Duane's blouse. </p> <p> "Somethin' queer here. But if you're Duane you're sure in bad. Any fool ought to know that. You mean it, then?" </p> <p> "Yes." </p> <p> "Rode in to shoot up the town, eh? Same old stunt of you gunfighters? Meant to kill the man who offered a reward? Wanted to see Jeff Aiken bad, huh?" </p> <p> "No," replied Duane. "Your citizen here misrepresented things. He seems a little off his head." </p> <p> "Reckon he is. Somebody is, that's sure. You claim Buck Duane, then, an' all his doings?" </p> <p> "I'm Duane; yes. But I won't stand for the blame of things I never did. That's why I'm here. I saw that placard out there offering the reward. Until now I never was within half a day's ride of this town. I'm blamed for what I never did. I rode in here, told who I was, asked somebody to send for Jeff Aiken." </p> <p> "An' then you set down an' let this old guy throw your own gun on you?" queried the cowboy in amazement. </p> <p> "I guess that's it," replied Duane. </p> <p> "Well, it's powerful strange, if you're really Buck Duane." </p> <p> A man elbowed his way into the circle. </p> <p> "It's Duane. I recognize him. I seen him in more'n one place," he said. "Sibert, you can rely on what I tell you. I don't know if he's locoed or what. But I do know he's the genuine Buck Duane. Any one who'd ever seen him onct would never forget him." </p> <p> "What do you want to see Aiken for?" asked the cowboy Sibert. </p> <p> "I want to face him, and tell him I never harmed his wife." </p> <p> "Why?" </p> <p> "Because I'm innocent, that's all." </p> <p> "Suppose we send for Aiken an' he hears you an' doesn't believe you; what then?" </p> <p> "If he won't believe me&mdash;why, then my case's so bad&mdash;I'd be better off dead." </p> <p> A momentary silence was broken by Sibert. </p> <p> "If this isn't a queer deal! Boys, reckon we'd better send for Jeff." </p> <p> "Somebody went fer him. He'll be comin' soon," replied a man. </p> <p> Duane stood a head taller than that circle of curious faces. He gazed out above and beyond them. It was in this way that he chanced to see a number of women on the outskirts of the crowd. Some were old, with hard faces, like the men. Some were young and comely, and most of these seemed agitated by excitement or distress. They cast fearful, pitying glances upon Duane as he stood there with that noose round his neck. Women were more human than men, Duane thought. He met eyes that dilated, seemed fascinated at his gaze, but were not averted. It was the old women who were voluble, loud in expression of their feelings. </p> <p> Near the trunk of the cottonwood stood a slender woman in white. Duane's wandering glance rested upon her. Her eyes were riveted upon him. A soft-hearted woman, probably, who did not want to see him hanged! </p> <p> "Thar comes Jeff Aiken now," called a man, loudly. </p> <p> The crowd shifted and trampled in eagerness. </p> <p> Duane saw two men coming fast, one of whom, in the lead, was of stalwart build. He had a gun in his hand, and his manner was that of fierce energy. </p> <p> The cowboy Sibert thrust open the jostling circle of men. </p> <p> "Hold on, Jeff," he called, and he blocked the man with the gun. He spoke so low Duane could not hear what he said, and his form hid Aiken's face. At that juncture the crowd spread out, closed in, and Aiken and Sibert were caught in the circle. There was a pushing forward, a pressing of many bodies, hoarse cries and flinging hands&mdash;again the insane tumult was about to break out&mdash;the demand for an outlaw's blood, the call for a wild justice executed a thousand times before on Texas's bloody soil. </p> <p> Sibert bellowed at the dark encroaching mass. The cowboys with him beat and cuffed in vain. </p> <p> "Jeff, will you listen?" broke in Sibert, hurriedly, his hand on the other man's arm. </p> <p> Aiken nodded coolly. Duane, who had seen many men in perfect control of themselves under circumstances like these, recognized the spirit that dominated Aiken. He was white, cold, passionless. There were lines of bitter grief deep round his lips. If Duane ever felt the meaning of death he felt it then. </p> <p> "Sure this 's your game, Aiken," said Sibert. "But hear me a minute. Reckon there's no doubt about this man bein' Buck Duane. He seen the placard out at the cross-roads. He rides in to Shirley. He says he's Buck Duane an' he's lookin' for Jeff Aiken. That's all clear enough. You know how these gunfighters go lookin' for trouble. But here's what stumps me. Duane sits down there on the bench and lets old Abe Strickland grab his gun ant get the drop on him. More'n that, he gives me some strange talk about how, if he couldn't make you believe he's innocent, he'd better be dead. You see for yourself Duane ain't drunk or crazy or locoed. He doesn't strike me as a man who rode in here huntin' blood. So I reckon you'd better hold on till you hear what he has to say." </p> <p> Then for the first time the drawn-faced, hungry-eyed giant turned his gaze upon Duane. He had intelligence which was not yet subservient to passion. Moreover, he seemed the kind of man Duane would care to have judge him in a critical moment like this. </p> <p> "Listen," said Duane, gravely, with his eyes steady on Aiken's, "I'm Buck Duane. I never lied to any man in my life. I was forced into outlawry. I've never had a chance to leave the country. I've killed men to save my own life. I never intentionally harmed any woman. I rode thirty miles to-day&mdash;deliberately to see what this reward was, who made it, what for. When I read the placard I went sick to the bottom of my soul. So I rode in here to find you&mdash;to tell you this: I never saw Shirley before to-day. It was impossible for me to have&mdash;killed your wife. Last September I was two hundred miles north of here on the upper Nueces. I can prove that. Men who know me will tell you I couldn't murder a woman. I haven't any idea why such a deed should be laid at my hands. It's just that wild border gossip. I have no idea what reasons you have for holding me responsible. I only know&mdash;you're wrong. You've been deceived. And see here, Aiken. You understand I'm a miserable man. I'm about broken, I guess. I don't care any more for life, for anything. If you can't look me in the eyes, man to man, and believe what I say&mdash;why, by God! you can kill me!" </p> <p> Aiken heaved a great breath. </p> <p> "Buck Duane, whether I'm impressed or not by what you say needn't matter. You've had accusers, justly or unjustly, as will soon appear. The thing is we can prove you innocent or guilty. My girl Lucy saw my wife's assailant." </p> <p> He motioned for the crowd of men to open up. </p> <p> "Somebody&mdash;you, Sibert&mdash;go for Lucy. That'll settle this thing." </p> <p> Duane heard as a man in an ugly dream. The faces around him, the hum of voices, all seemed far off. His life hung by the merest thread. Yet he did not think of that so much as of the brand of a woman-murderer which might be soon sealed upon him by a frightened, imaginative child. </p> <p> The crowd trooped apart and closed again. Duane caught a blurred image of a slight girl clinging to Sibert's hand. He could not see distinctly. Aiken lifted the child, whispered soothingly to her not to be afraid. Then he fetched her closer to Duane. </p> <p> "Lucy, tell me. Did you ever see this man before?" asked Aiken, huskily and low. "Is he the one&mdash;who came in the house that day&mdash;struck you down&mdash;and dragged mama&mdash;?" </p> <p> Aiken's voice failed. </p> <p> A lightning flash seemed to clear Duane's blurred sight. He saw a pale, sad face and violet eyes fixed in gloom and horror upon his. No terrible moment in Duane's life ever equaled this one of silence&mdash;of suspense. </p> <p> "It's ain't him!" cried the child. </p> <p> Then Sibert was flinging the noose off Duane's neck and unwinding the bonds round his arms. The spellbound crowd awoke to hoarse exclamations. </p> <p> "See there, my locoed gents, how easy you'd hang the wrong man," burst out the cowboy, as he made the rope-end hiss. "You-all are a lot of wise rangers. Haw! haw!" </p> <p> He freed Duane and thrust the bone-handled gun back in Duane's holster. </p> <p> "You Abe, there. Reckon you pulled a stunt! But don't try the like again. And, men, I'll gamble there's a hell of a lot of bad work Buck Duane's named for&mdash;which all he never done. Clear away there. Where's his hoss? Duane, the road's open out of Shirley." </p> <p> Sibert swept the gaping watchers aside and pressed Duane toward the horse, which another cowboy held. Mechanically Duane mounted, felt a lift as he went up. Then the cowboy's hard face softened in a smile. </p> <p> "I reckon it ain't uncivil of me to say&mdash;hit that road quick!" he said, frankly. </p> <p> He led the horse out of the crowd. Aiken joined him, and between them they escorted Duane across the plaza. The crowd appeared irresistibly drawn to follow. </p> <p> Aiken paused with his big hand on Duane's knee. In it, unconsciously probably, he still held the gun. </p> <p> "Duane, a word with you," he said. "I believe you're not so black as you've been painted. I wish there was time to say more. Tell me this, anyway. Do you know the Ranger Captain MacNelly?" </p> <p> "I do not," replied Duane, in surprise. </p> <p> "I met him only a week ago over in Fairfield," went on Aiken, hurriedly. "He declared you never killed my wife. I didn't believe him&mdash;argued with him. We almost had hard words over it. Now&mdash;I'm sorry. The last thing he said was: 'If you ever see Duane don't kill him. Send him into my camp after dark!' He meant something strange. What&mdash;I can't say. But he was right, and I was wrong. If Lucy had batted an eye I'd have killed you. Still, I wouldn't advise you to hunt up MacNelly's camp. He's clever. Maybe he believes there's no treachery in his new ideas of ranger tactics. I tell you for all it's worth. Good-by. May God help you further as he did this day!" </p> <p> Duane said good-by and touched the horse with his spurs. </p> <p> "So long, Buck!" called Sibert, with that frank smile breaking warm over his brown face; and he held his sombrero high. </p> <p>
SPONSORED LINKS