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Lone Star Ranger, The

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<SPAN name="link2HCH0018" id="link2HCH0018"> <!-- H2 anchor --> </SPAN> </p> <div style="height: 4em;"> <br /><br /><br /><br /> </div> <h2> CHAPTER XVIII </h2> <p> Strangers rode into Fairdale; and other hard-looking customers, new to Duane if not to Fairdale, helped to create a charged and waiting atmosphere. The saloons did unusual business and were never closed. Respectable citizens of the town were awakened in the early dawn by rowdies carousing in the streets. </p> <p> Duane kept pretty close under cover during the day. He did not entertain the opinion that the first time he walked down-street he would be a target for guns. Things seldom happened that way; and when they did happen so, it was more accident than design. But at night he was not idle. He met Laramie, Morton, Zimmer, and others of like character; a secret club had been formed; and all the members were ready for action. Duane spent hours at night watching the house where Floyd Lawson stayed when he was not up at Longstreth's. At night he was visited, or at least the house was, by strange men who were swift, stealthy, mysterious&mdash;all that kindly disposed friends or neighbors would not have been. Duane had not been able to recognize any of these night visitors; and he did not think the time was ripe for a bold holding-up of one of them. Nevertheless, he was sure such an event would discover Lawson, or some one in that house, to be in touch with crooked men. </p> <p> Laramie was right. Not twenty-four hours after his last talk with Duane, in which he advised quick action, he was found behind the little bar of his restaurant with a bullet-hole in his breast, dead. No one could be found who had heard a shot. It had been deliberate murder, for upon the bar had been left a piece of paper rudely scrawled with a pencil: "All friends of rangers look for the same." </p> <p> This roused Duane. His first move, however, was to bury Laramie. None of Laramie's neighbors evinced any interest in the dead man or the unfortunate family he had left. Duane saw that these neighbors were held in check by fear. Mrs. Laramie was ill; the shock of her husband's death was hard on her; and she had been left almost destitute with five children. Duane rented a small adobe house on the outskirts of town and moved the family into it. Then he played the part of provider and nurse and friend. </p> <p> After several days Duane went boldly into town and showed that he meant business. It was his opinion that there were men in Fairdale secretly glad of a ranger's presence. What he intended to do was food for great speculation. A company of militia could not have had the effect upon the wild element of Fairdale that Duane's presence had. It got out that he was a gunman lightning swift on the draw. It was death to face him. He had killed thirty men&mdash;wildest rumor of all&mdash;it was actually said of him he had the gun-skill of Buck Duane or of Poggin. </p> <p> At first there had not only been great conjecture among the vicious element, but also a very decided checking of all kinds of action calculated to be conspicuous to a keen-eyed ranger. At the tables, at the bars and lounging-places Duane heard the remarks: "Who's thet ranger after? What'll he do fust off? Is he waitin' fer somebody? Who's goin' to draw on him fust&mdash;an' go to hell? Jest about how soon will he be found somewheres full of lead?" </p> <p> When it came out somewhere that Duane was openly cultivating the honest stay-at-home citizens to array them in time against the other element, then Fairdale showed its wolf-teeth. Several times Duane was shot at in the dark and once slightly injured. Rumor had it that Poggin, the gunman, was coming to meet him. But the lawless element did not rise up in a mass to slay Duane on sight. It was not so much that the enemies of the law awaited his next move, but just a slowness peculiar to the frontier. The ranger was in their midst. He was interesting, if formidable. He would have been welcomed at card-tables, at the bars, to play and drink with the men who knew they were under suspicion. There was a rude kind of good humor even in their open hostility. </p> <p> Besides, one ranger or a company of rangers could not have held the undivided attention of these men from their games and drinks and quarrels except by some decided move. Excitement, greed, appetite were rife in them. Duane marked, however, a striking exception to the usual run of strangers he had been in the habit of seeing. Snecker had gone or was under cover. Again Duane caught a vague rumor of the coming of Poggin, yet he never seemed to arrive. Moreover, the goings-on among the habitues of the resorts and the cowboys who came in to drink and gamble were unusually mild in comparison with former conduct. This lull, however, did not deceive Duane. It could not last. The wonder was that it had lasted so long. </p> <p> Duane went often to see Mrs. Laramie and her children. One afternoon while he was there he saw Miss Longstreth and Ruth ride up to the door. They carried a basket. Evidently they had heard of Mrs. Laramie's trouble. Duane felt strangely glad, but he went into an adjoining room rather than meet them. </p> <p> "Mrs. Laramie, I've come to see you," said Miss Longstreth, cheerfully. </p> <p> The little room was not very light, there being only one window and the doors, but Duane could see plainly enough. Mrs. Laramie lay, hollow-checked and haggard, on a bed. Once she had evidently been a woman of some comeliness. The ravages of trouble and grief were there to read in her worn face; it had not, however, any of the hard and bitter lines that had characterized her husband's. </p> <p> Duane wondered, considering that Longstreth had ruined Laramie, how Mrs. Laramie was going to regard the daughter of an enemy. </p> <p> "So you're Granger Longstreth's girl?" queried the woman, with her bright, black eyes fixed on her visitor. </p> <p> "Yes," replied Miss Longstreth, simply. "This is my cousin, Ruth Herbert. We've come to nurse you, take care of the children, help you in any way you'll let us." </p> <p> There was a long silence. </p> <p> "Well, you look a little like Longstreth," finally said Mrs. Laramie, "but you're not at ALL like him. You must take after your mother. Miss Longstreth, I don't know if I can&mdash;if I ought accept anything from you. Your father ruined my husband." </p> <p> "Yes, I know," replied the girl, sadly. "That's all the more reason you should let me help you. Pray don't refuse. It will&mdash;mean so much to me." </p> <p> If this poor, stricken woman had any resentment it speedily melted in the warmth and sweetness of Miss Longstreth's manner. Duane's idea was that the impression of Ray Longstreth's beauty was always swiftly succeeded by that of her generosity and nobility. At any rate, she had started well with Mrs. Laramie, and no sooner had she begun to talk to the children than both they and the mother were won. The opening of that big basket was an event. Poor, starved little beggars! Duane's feelings seemed too easily roused. Hard indeed would it have gone with Jim Laramie's slayer if he could have laid eyes on him then. However, Miss Longstreth and Ruth, after the nature of tender and practical girls, did not appear to take the sad situation to heart. The havoc was wrought in that household. </p> <p> The needs now were cheerfulness, kindness, help, action&mdash;and these the girls furnished with a spirit that did Duane good. </p> <p> "Mrs. Laramie, who dressed this baby?" presently asked Miss Longstreth. Duane peeped in to see a dilapidated youngster on her knee. That sight, if any other was needed, completed his full and splendid estimate of Ray Longstreth and wrought strangely upon his heart. </p> <p> "The ranger," replied Mrs. Laramie. </p> <p> "The ranger!" exclaimed Miss Longstreth. </p> <p> "Yes, he's taken care of us all since&mdash;since&mdash;" Mrs. Laramie choked. </p> <p> "Oh! So you've had no help but his," replied Miss Longstreth, hastily. "No women. Too bad! I'll send some one, Mrs. Laramie, and I'll come myself." </p> <p> "It'll be good of you," went on the older woman. "You see, Jim had few friends&mdash;that is, right in town. And they've been afraid to help us&mdash;afraid they'd get what poor Jim&mdash;" </p> <p> "That's awful!" burst out Miss Longstreth, passionately. "A brave lot of friends! Mrs. Laramie, don't you worry any more. We'll take care of you. Here, Ruth, help me. Whatever is the matter with baby's dress?" </p> <p> Manifestly Miss Longstreth had some difficulty in subduing her emotion. </p> <p> "Why, it's on hind side before," declared Ruth. "I guess Mr. Ranger hasn't dressed many babies." </p> <p> "He did the best he could," said Mrs. Laramie. "Lord only knows what would have become of us!" </p> <p> "Then he is&mdash;is something more than a ranger?" queried Miss Longstreth, with a little break in her voice. </p> <p> "He's more than I can tell," replied Mrs. Laramie. "He buried Jim. He paid our debts. He fetched us here. He bought food for us. He cooked for us and fed us. He washed and dressed the baby. He sat with me the first two nights after Jim's death, when I thought I'd die myself. He's so kind, so gentle, so patient. He has kept me up just by being near. Sometimes I'd wake from a doze, an', seeing him there, I'd know how false were all these tales Jim heard about him and believed at first. Why, he plays with the children just&mdash;just like any good man might. When he has the baby up I just can't believe he's a bloody gunman, as they say. He's good, but he isn't happy. He has such sad eyes. He looks far off sometimes when the children climb round him. They love him. His life is sad. Nobody need tell me&mdash;he sees the good in things. Once he said somebody had to be a ranger. Well, I say, 'Thank God for a ranger like him!'" </p> <p> Duane did not want to hear more, so he walked into the room. </p> <p> "It was thoughtful of you," Duane said. "Womankind are needed here. I could do so little. Mrs. Laramie, you look better already. I'm glad. And here's baby, all clean and white. Baby, what a time I had trying to puzzle out the way your clothes went on! Well, Mrs. Laramie, didn't I tell you&mdash;friends would come? So will the brighter side." </p> <p> "Yes, I've more faith than I had," replied Mrs. Laramie. "Granger Longstreth's daughter has come to me. There for a while after Jim's death I thought I'd sink. We have nothing. How could I ever take care of my little ones? But I'm gaining courage to&mdash;" </p> <p> "Mrs. Laramie, do not distress yourself any more," said Miss Longstreth. "I shall see you are well cared for. I promise you." </p> <p> "Miss Longstreth, that's fine!" exclaimed Duane. "It's what I'd have&mdash;expected of you." </p> <p> It must have been sweet praise to her, for the whiteness of her face burned out in a beautiful blush. </p> <p> "And it's good of you, too, Miss Herbert, to come," added Duane. "Let me thank you both. I'm glad I have you girls as allies in part of my lonely task here. More than glad for the sake of this good woman and the little ones. But both of you be careful about coming here alone. There's risk. And now I'll be going. Good-by, Mrs. Laramie. I'll drop in again to-night. Good-by." </p> <p> "Mr. Ranger, wait!" called Miss Longstreth, as he went out. She was white and wonderful. She stepped out of the door close to him. </p> <p> "I have wronged you," she said, impulsively. </p> <p> "Miss Longstreth! How can you say that?" he returned. </p> <p> "I believed what my father and Floyd Lawson said about you. Now I see&mdash;I wronged you." </p> <p> "You make me very glad. But, Miss Longstreth, please don't speak of wronging me. I have been a&mdash;a gunman, I am a ranger&mdash;and much said of me is true. My duty is hard on others&mdash;sometimes on those who are innocent, alas! But God knows that duty is hard, too, on me." </p> <p> "I did wrong you. If you entered my home again I would think it an honor. I&mdash;" </p> <p> "Please&mdash;please don't, Miss Longstreth," interrupted Duane. </p> <p> "But, sir, my conscience flays me," she went on. There was no other sound like her voice. "Will you take my hand? Will you forgive me?" </p> <p> She gave it royally, while the other was there pressing at her breast. Duane took the proffered hand. He did not know what else to do. </p> <p> Then it seemed to dawn upon him that there was more behind this white, sweet, noble intensity of her than just the making amends for a fancied or real wrong. Duane thought the man did not live on earth who could have resisted her then. </p> <p> "I honor you for your goodness to this unfortunate woman," she said, and now her speech came swiftly. "When she was all alone and helpless you were her friend. It was the deed of a man. But Mrs. Laramie isn't the only unfortunate woman in the world. I, too, am unfortunate. Ah, how I may soon need a friend! Will you be my friend? I'm so alone. I'm terribly worried. I fear&mdash;I fear&mdash;Oh, surely I'll need a friend soon&mdash;soon. Oh, I'm afraid of what you'll find out sooner or later. I want to help you. Let us save life if not honor. Must I stand alone&mdash;all alone? Will you&mdash;will you be&mdash;" Her voice failed. </p> <p> It seemed to Duane that she must have discovered what he had begun to suspect&mdash;that her father and Lawson were not the honest ranchers they pretended to be. Perhaps she knew more! Her appeal to Duane shook him deeply. He wanted to help her more than he had ever wanted anything. And with the meaning of the tumultuous sweetness she stirred in him there came realization of a dangerous situation. </p> <p> "I must be true to my duty," he said, hoarsely. </p> <p> "If you knew me you'd know I could never ask you to be false to it." </p> <p> "Well, then&mdash;I'll do anything for you." </p> <p> "Oh, thank you! I'm ashamed that I believed my cousin Floyd! He lied&mdash;he lied. I'm all in the dark, strangely distressed. My father wants me to go back home. Floyd is trying to keep me here. They've quarreled. Oh, I know something dreadful will happen. I know I'll need you if&mdash;if&mdash;Will you help me?" </p> <p> "Yes," replied Duane, and his look brought the blood to her face. </p> <p>
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