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Lone Star Ranger, The

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<SPAN name="link2HCH0017" id="link2HCH0017"> <!-- H2 anchor --> </SPAN> </p> <div style="height: 4em;"> <br /><br /><br /><br /> </div> <h2> CHAPTER XVII </h2> <p> Duane left the hall, elbowed his way through the crowd, and went down the street. He was certain that on the faces of some men he had seen ill-concealed wonder and satisfaction. He had struck some kind of a hot trait, and he meant to see where it led. It was by no means unlikely that Cheseldine might be at the other end. Duane controlled a mounting eagerness. But ever and anon it was shot through with a remembrance of Ray Longstreth. He suspected her father of being not what he pretended. He might, very probably would, bring sorrow and shame to this young woman. The thought made him smart with pain. She began to haunt him, and then he was thinking more of her beauty and sweetness than of the disgrace he might bring upon her. Some strange emotion, long locked inside Duane's heart, knocked to be heard, to be let out. He was troubled. </p> <p> Upon returning to the inn he found Laramie there, apparently none the worse for his injury. </p> <p> "How are you, Laramie?" he asked. </p> <p> "Reckon I'm feelin' as well as could be expected," replied Laramie. His head was circled by a bandage that did not conceal the lump where he had been struck. He looked pale, but was bright enough. </p> <p> "That was a good crack Snecker gave you," remarked Duane. </p> <p> "I ain't accusin' Bo," remonstrated Laramie, with eyes that made Duane thoughtful. </p> <p> "Well, I accuse him. I caught him&mdash;took him to Longstreth's court. But they let him go." </p> <p> Laramie appeared to be agitated by this intimation of friendship. </p> <p> "See here, Laramie," went on Duane, "in some parts of Texas it's policy to be close-mouthed. Policy and health-preserving! Between ourselves, I want you to know I lean on your side of the fence." </p> <p> Laramie gave a quick start. Presently Duane turned and frankly met his gaze. He had startled Laramie out of his habitual set taciturnity; but even as he looked the light that might have been amaze and joy faded out of his face, leaving it the same old mask. Still Duane had seen enough. Like a bloodhound he had a scent. </p> <p> "Talking about work, Laramie, who'd you say Snecker worked for?" </p> <p> "I didn't say." </p> <p> "Well, say so now, can't you? Laramie, you're powerful peevish to-day. It's that bump on your head. Who does Snecker work for?" </p> <p> "When he works at all, which sure ain't often, he rides for Longstreth." </p> <p> "Humph! Seems to me that Longstreth's the whole circus round Fairdale. I was some sore the other day to find I was losing good money at Longstreth's faro game. Sure if I'd won I wouldn't have been sore&mdash;ha, ha! But I was surprised to hear some one say Longstreth owned the Hope So joint." </p> <p> "He owns considerable property hereabouts," replied Laramie, constrainedly. </p> <p> "Humph again! Laramie, like every other fellow I meet in this town, you're afraid to open your trap about Longstreth. Get me straight, Laramie. I don't care a damn for Colonel Mayor Longstreth. And for cause I'd throw a gun on him just as quick as on any rustler in Pecos." </p> <p> "Talk's cheap," replied Laramie, making light of his bluster, but the red was deeper in his face. </p> <p> "Sure. I know that," Duane said. "And usually I don't talk. Then it's not well known that Longstreth owns the Hope So?" </p> <p> "Reckon it's known in Pecos, all right. But Longstreth's name isn't connected with the Hope So. Blandy runs the place." </p> <p> "That Blandy. His faro game's crooked, or I'm a locoed bronch. Not that we don't have lots of crooked faro-dealers. A fellow can stand for them. But Blandy's mean, back-handed, never looks you in the eyes. That Hope So place ought to be run by a good fellow like you, Laramie." </p> <p> "Thanks," replied he; and Duane imagined his voice a little husky. "Didn't you hear I used to run it?" </p> <p> "No. Did you?" Duane said, quickly. </p> <p> "I reckon. I built the place, made additions twice, owned it for eleven years." </p> <p> "Well, I'll be doggoned." It was indeed Duane's turn to be surprised, and with the surprise came a glimmering. "I'm sorry you're not there now. Did you sell out?" </p> <p> "No. Just lost the place." </p> <p> Laramie was bursting for relief now&mdash;to talk, to tell. Sympathy had made him soft. </p> <p> "It was two years ago-two years last March," he went on. "I was in a big cattle deal with Longstreth. We got the stock&mdash;an' my share, eighteen hundred head, was rustled off. I owed Longstreth. He pressed me. It come to a lawsuit&mdash;an' I&mdash;was ruined." </p> <p> It hurt Duane to look at Laramie. He was white, and tears rolled down his cheeks. Duane saw the bitterness, the defeat, the agony of the man. He had failed to meet his obligations; nevertheless, he had been swindled. All that he suppressed, all that would have been passion had the man's spirit not been broken, lay bare for Duane to see. He had now the secret of his bitterness. But the reason he did not openly accuse Longstreth, the secret of his reticence and fear&mdash;these Duane thought best to try to learn at some later time. </p> <p> "Hard luck! It certainly was tough," Duane said. "But you're a good loser. And the wheel turns! Now, Laramie, here's what. I need your advice. I've got a little money. But before I lose it I want to invest some. Buy some stock, or buy an interest in some rancher's herd. What I want you to steer me on is a good square rancher. Or maybe a couple of ranchers, if there happen to be two honest ones. Ha, ha! No deals with ranchers who ride in the dark with rustlers! I've a hunch Fairdale is full of them. Now, Laramie, you've been here for years. Sure you must know a couple of men above suspicion." </p> <p> "Thank God I do," he replied, feelingly. "Frank Morton an' Si Zimmer, my friends an' neighbors all my prosperous days, an' friends still. You can gamble on Frank and Si. But if you want advice from me&mdash;don't invest money in stock now." </p> <p> "Why?" </p> <p> "Because any new feller buyin' stock these days will be rustled quicker 'n he can say Jack Robinson. The pioneers, the new cattlemen&mdash;these are easy pickin' for the rustlers. Lord knows all the ranchers are easy enough pickin'. But the new fellers have to learn the ropes. They don't know anythin' or anybody. An' the old ranchers are wise an' sore. They'd fight if they&mdash;" </p> <p> "What?" Duane put in, as he paused. "If they knew who was rustling the stock?" </p> <p> "Nope." </p> <p> "If they had the nerve?" </p> <p> "Not thet so much." </p> <p> "What then? What'd make them fight?" </p> <p> "A leader!" </p> <p> "Howdy thar, Jim," boomed a big voice. </p> <p> A man of great bulk, with a ruddy, merry face, entered the room. </p> <p> "Hello, Morton," replied Laramie. "I'd introduce you to my guest here, but I don't know his name." </p> <p> "Haw! Haw! Thet's all right. Few men out hyar go by their right names." </p> <p> "Say, Morton," put in Duane, "Laramie gave me a hunch you'd be a good man to tie to. Now, I've a little money and before I lose it I'd like to invest it in stock." </p> <p> Morton smiled broadly. </p> <p> "I'm on the square," Duane said, bluntly. "If you fellows never size up your neighbors any better than you have sized me&mdash;well, you won't get any richer." </p> <p> It was enjoyment for Duane to make his remarks to these men pregnant with meaning. Morton showed his pleasure, his interest, but his faith held aloof. </p> <p> "I've got some money. Will you let me in on some kind of deal? Will you start me up as a stockman with a little herd all my own?" </p> <p> "Wal, stranger, to come out flat-footed, you'd be foolish to buy cattle now. I don't want to take your money an' see you lose out. Better go back across the Pecos where the rustlers ain't so strong. I haven't had more'n twenty-five hundred herd of stock for ten years. The rustlers let me hang on to a breedin' herd. Kind of them, ain't it?" </p> <p> "Sort of kind. All I hear is rustlers, Morton," replied Duane, with impatience. "You see, I haven't ever lived long in a rustler-run county. Who heads the gang, anyway?" </p> <p> Morton looked at Duane with a curiously amused smile, then snapped his big jaw as if to shut in impulsive words. </p> <p> "Look here, Morton. It stands to reason, no matter how strong these rustlers are, how hidden their work, however involved with supposedly honest men&mdash;they CAN'T last." </p> <p> "They come with the pioneers, an' they'll last till thar's a single steer left," he declared. </p> <p> "Well, if you take that view of circumstances I just figure you as one of the rustlers." </p> <p> Morton looked as if he were about to brain Duane with the butt of his whip. His anger flashed by then, evidently as unworthy of him, and, something striking him as funny, he boomed out a laugh. </p> <p> "It's not so funny," Duane went on. "If you're going to pretend a yellow streak, what else will I think?" </p> <p> "Pretend?" he repeated. </p> <p> "Sure. I know men of nerve. And here they're not any different from those in other places. I say if you show anything like a lack of sand it's all bluff. By nature you've got nerve. There are a lot of men around Fairdale who're afraid of their shadows&mdash;afraid to be out after dark&mdash;afraid to open their mouths. But you're not one. So I say if you claim these rustlers will last you're pretending lack of nerve just to help the popular idea along. For they CAN'T last. What you need out here is some new blood. Savvy what I mean?" </p> <p> "Wal, I reckon I do," he replied, looking as if a storm had blown over him. "Stranger, I'll look you up the next time I come to town." </p> <p> Then he went out. </p> <p> Laramie had eyes like flint striking fire. </p> <p> He breathed a deep breath and looked around the room before his gaze fixed again on Duane. </p> <p> "Wal," he replied, speaking low. "You've picked the right men. Now, who in the hell are you?" </p> <p> Reaching into the inside pocket of his buckskin vest, Duane turned the lining out. A star-shaped bright silver object flashed as he shoved it, pocket and all, under Jim's hard eyes. </p> <p> "RANGER!" he whispered, cracking the table with his fist. "You sure rung true to me." </p> <p> "Laramie, do you know who's boss of this secret gang of rustlers hereabouts?" asked Duane, bluntly. It was characteristic of him to come sharp to the point. His voice&mdash;something deep, easy, cool about him&mdash;seemed to steady Laramie. </p> <p> "No," replied Laramie. </p> <p> "Does anybody know?" went on Duane. </p> <p> "Wal, I reckon there's not one honest native who KNOWS." </p> <p> "But you have your suspicions?" </p> <p> "We have." </p> <p> "Give me your idea about this crowd that hangs round the saloons&mdash;the regulars." </p> <p> "Jest a bad lot," replied Laramie, with the quick assurance of knowledge. "Most of them have been here years. Others have drifted in. Some of them work, odd times. They rustle a few steers, steal, rob, anythin' for a little money to drink an' gamble. Jest a bad lot!" </p> <p> "Have you any idea whether Cheseldine and his gang are associated with this gang here?" </p> <p> "Lord knows. I've always suspected them the same gang. None of us ever seen Cheseldine&mdash;an' thet's strange, when Knell, Poggin, Panhandle Smith, Blossom Kane, and Fletcher, they all ride here often. No, Poggin doesn't come often. But the others do. For thet matter, they're around all over west of the Pecos." </p> <p> "Now I'm puzzled over this," said Duane. "Why do men&mdash;apparently honest men&mdash;seem to be so close-mouthed here? Is that a fact, or only my impression?" </p> <p> "It's a sure fact," replied Laramie, darkly. "Men have lost cattle an' property in Fairdale&mdash;lost them honestly or otherwise, as hasn't been proved. An' in some cases when they talked&mdash;hinted a little&mdash;they was found dead. Apparently held up an robbed. But dead. Dead men don't talk! Thet's why we're close mouthed." </p> <p> Duane felt a dark, somber sternness. Rustling cattle was not intolerable. Western Texas had gone on prospering, growing in spite of the hordes of rustlers ranging its vast stretches; but a cold, secret, murderous hold on a little struggling community was something too strange, too terrible for men to stand long. </p> <p> The ranger was about to speak again when the clatter of hoofs interrupted him. Horses halted out in front, and one rider got down. Floyd Lawson entered. He called for tobacco. </p> <p> If his visit surprised Laramie he did not show any evidence. But Lawson showed rage as he saw the ranger, and then a dark glint flitted from the eyes that shifted from Duane to Laramie and back again. Duane leaned easily against the counter. </p> <p> "Say, that was a bad break of yours," Lawson said. "If you come fooling round the ranch again there'll be hell." </p> <p> It seemed strange that a man who had lived west of the Pecos for ten years could not see in Duane something which forbade that kind of talk. It certainly was not nerve Lawson showed; men of courage were seldom intolerant. With the matchless nerve that characterized the great gunmen of the day there was a cool, unobtrusive manner, a speech brief, almost gentle, certainly courteous. Lawson was a hot-headed Louisianian of French extraction; a man, evidently, who had never been crossed in anything, and who was strong, brutal, passionate, which qualities in the face of a situation like this made him simply a fool. </p> <p> "I'm saying again, you used your ranger bluff just to get near Ray Longstreth," Lawson sneered. "Mind you, if you come up there again there'll be hell." </p> <p> "You're right. But not the kind you think," Duane retorted, his voice sharp and cold. </p> <p> "Ray Longstreth wouldn't stoop to know a dirty blood-tracker like you," said Lawson, hotly. He did not seem to have a deliberate intention to rouse Duane; the man was simply rancorous, jealous. "I'll call you right. You cheap bluffer! You four-flush! You damned interfering, conceited ranger!" </p> <p> "Lawson, I'll not take offense, because you seem to be championing your beautiful cousin," replied Duane, in slow speech. "But let me return your compliment. You're a fine Southerner! Why, you're only a cheap four-flush&mdash;damned, bull-headed RUSTLER!" </p> <p> Duane hissed the last word. Then for him there was the truth in Lawson's working passion-blackened face. </p> <p> Lawson jerked, moved, meant to draw. But how slow! Duane lunged forward. His long arm swept up. And Lawson staggered backward, knocking table and chairs, to fall hard, in a half-sitting posture against the wall. </p> <p> "Don't draw!" warned Duane. </p> <p> "Lawson, git away from your gun!" yelled Laramie. </p> <p> But Lawson was crazed with fury. He tugged at his hip, his face corded with purple welts, malignant, murderous. Duane kicked the gun out of his hand. Lawson got up, raging, and rushed out. </p> <p> Laramie lifted his shaking hands. </p> <p> "What'd you wing him for?" he wailed. "He was drawin' on you. Kickin' men like him won't do out here." </p> <p> "That bull-headed fool will roar and butt himself with all his gang right into our hands. He's just the man I've needed to meet. Besides, shooting him would have been murder." </p> <p> "Murder!" exclaimed Laramie. </p> <p> "Yes, for me," replied Duane. </p> <p> "That may be true&mdash;whoever you are&mdash;but if Lawson's the man you think he is he'll begin thet secret underground bizness. Why, Lawson won't sleep of nights now. He an' Longstreth have always been after me." </p> <p> "Laramie, what are your eyes for?" demanded Duane. "Watch out. And now here. See your friend Morton. Tell him this game grows hot. Together you approach four or five men you know well and can absolutely trust. I may need your help." </p> <p> Then Duane went from place to place, corner to corner, bar to bar, watching, listening, recording. The excitement had preceded him, and speculation was rife. He thought best to keep out of it. After dark he stole up to Longstreth's ranch. The evening was warm; the doors were open; and in the twilight the only lamps that had been lit were in Longstreth's big sitting-room, at the far end of the house. When a buckboard drove up and Longstreth and Lawson alighted, Duane was well hidden in the bushes, so well screened that he could get but a fleeting glimpse of Longstreth as he went in. For all Duane could see, he appeared to be a calm and quiet man, intense beneath the surface, with an air of dignity under insult. Duane's chance to observe Lawson was lost. They went into the house without speaking and closed the door. </p> <p> At the other end of the porch, close under a window, was an offset between step and wall, and there in the shadow Duane hid. So Duane waited there in the darkness with patience born of many hours of hiding. </p> <p> Presently a lamp was lit; and Duane heard the swish of skirts. </p> <p> "Something's happened surely, Ruth," he heard Miss Longstreth say, anxiously. "Papa just met me in the hall and didn't speak. He seemed pale, worried." </p> <p> "Cousin Floyd looked like a thunder-cloud," said Ruth. "For once he didn't try to kiss me. Something's happened. Well, Ray, this had been a bad day." </p> <p> "Oh, dear! Ruth, what can we do? These are wild men. Floyd makes life miserable for me. And he teases you unmer&mdash;" </p> <p> "I don't call it teasing. Floyd wants to spoon," declared Ruth, emphatically. "He'd run after any woman." </p> <p> "A fine compliment to me, Cousin Ruth," laughed Ray. </p> <p> "I don't care," replied Ruth, stubbornly, "it's so. He's mushy. And when he's been drinking and tries to kiss me&mdash;I hate him!" </p> <p> There were steps on the hall floor. </p> <p> "Hello, girls!" sounded out Lawson's voice, minus its usual gaiety. </p> <p> "Floyd, what's the matter?" asked Ray, presently. "I never saw papa as he is to-night, nor you so&mdash;so worried. Tell me, what has happened?" </p> <p> "Well, Ray, we had a jar to-day," replied Lawson, with a blunt, expressive laugh. </p> <p> "Jar?" echoed both the girls, curiously. </p> <p> "We had to submit to a damnable outrage," added Lawson, passionately, as if the sound of his voice augmented his feeling. "Listen, girls; I'll tell you-all about it." He coughed, cleared his throat in a way that betrayed he had been drinking. </p> <p> Duane sunk deeper into the shadow of his covert, and, stiffening his muscles for a protected spell of rigidity, prepared to listen with all acuteness and intensity. Just one word from this Lawson, inadvertently uttered in a moment of passion, might be the word Duane needed for his clue. </p> <p> "It happened at the town hall," began Lawson, rapidly. "Your father and Judge Owens and I were there in consultation with three ranchers from out of town. Then that damned ranger stalked in dragging Snecker, the fellow who hid here in the house. He had arrested Snecker for alleged assault on a restaurant-keeper named Laramie. Snecker being obviously innocent, he was discharged. Then this ranger began shouting his insults. Law was a farce in Fairdale. The court was a farce. There was no law. Your father's office as mayor should be impeached. He made arrests only for petty offenses. He was afraid of the rustlers, highwaymen, murderers. He was afraid or&mdash;he just let them alone. He used his office to cheat ranchers and cattlemen in lawsuits. All this the ranger yelled for every one to hear. A damnable outrage. Your father, Ray, insulted in his own court by a rowdy ranger!" </p> <p> "Oh!" cried Ray Longstreth, in mingled distress and anger. </p> <p> "The ranger service wants to rule western Texas," went on Lawson. "These rangers are all a low set, many of them worse than the outlaws they hunt. Some of them were outlaws and gun-fighters before they became rangers. This is one of the worst of the lot. He's keen, intelligent, smooth, and that makes him more to be feared. For he is to be feared. He wanted to kill. He would kill. If your father had made the least move he would have shot him. He's a cold-nerved devil&mdash;the born gunman. My God, any instant I expected to see your father fall dead at my feet!" </p> <p> "Oh, Floyd! The unspeakable ruffian!" cried Ray Longstreth, passionately. </p> <p> "You see, Ray, this fellow, like all rangers, seeks notoriety. He made that play with Snecker just for a chance to rant against your father. He tried to inflame all Fairdale against him. That about the lawsuits was the worst! Damn him! He'll make us enemies." </p> <p> "What do you care for the insinuations of such a man?" said Ray Longstreth, her voice now deep and rich with feeling. "After a moment's thought no one will be influenced by them. Do not worry, Floyd. Tell papa not to worry. Surely after all these years he can't be injured in reputation by&mdash;by an adventurer." </p> <p> "Yes, he can be injured," replied Floyd, quickly. "The frontier is a queer place. There are many bitter men here&mdash;men who have failed at ranching. And your father has been wonderfully successful. The ranger has dropped poison, and it'll spread." </p> <p>
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