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Lone Star Ranger, The

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<SPAN name="link2HCH0019" id="link2HCH0019"> <!-- H2 anchor --> </SPAN> </p> <div style="height: 4em;"> <br /><br /><br /><br /> </div> <h2> CHAPTER XIX </h2> <p> After supper Duane stole out for his usual evening's spying. The night was dark, without starlight, and a stiff wind rustled the leaves. Duane bent his steps toward the Longstreth's ranchhouse. He had so much to think about that he never knew where the time went. This night when he reached the edge of the shrubbery he heard Lawson's well-known footsteps and saw Longstreth's door open, flashing a broad bar of light in the darkness. Lawson crossed the threshold, the door closed, and all was dark again outside. Not a ray of light escaped from the window. </p> <p> Little doubt there was that his talk with Longstreth would be interesting to Duane. He tiptoed to the door and listened, but could hear only a murmur of voices. Besides, that position was too risky. He went round the corner of the house. </p> <p> This side of the big adobe house was of much older construction than the back and larger part. There was a narrow passage between the houses, leading from the outside through to the patio. </p> <p> This passage now afforded Duane an opportunity, and he decided to avail himself of it in spite of the very great danger. Crawling on very stealthily, he got under the shrubbery to the entrance of the passage. In the blackness a faint streak of light showed the location of a crack in the wall. He had to slip in sidewise. It was a tight squeeze, but he entered without the slightest noise. As he progressed the passage grew a very little wider in that direction, and that fact gave rise to the thought that in case of a necessary and hurried exit he would do best by working toward the patio. It seemed a good deal of time was consumed in reaching a vantage-point. When he did get there the crack he had marked was a foot over his head. There was nothing to do but find toe-holes in the crumbling walls, and by bracing knees on one side, back against the other, hold himself up Once with his eye there he did not care what risk he ran. Longstreth appeared disturbed; he sat stroking his mustache; his brow was clouded. Lawson's face seemed darker, more sullen, yet lighted by some indomitable resolve. </p> <p> "We'll settle both deals to-night," Lawson was saying. "That's what I came for." </p> <p> "But suppose I don't choose to talk here?" protested Longstreth, impatiently. "I never before made my house a place to&mdash;" </p> <p> "We've waited long enough. This place's as good as any. You've lost your nerve since that ranger hit the town. First now, will you give Ray to me?" </p> <p> "Floyd; you talk like a spoiled boy. Give Ray to you! Why, she's a woman, and I'm finding out that she's got a mind of her own. I told you I was willing for her to marry you. I tried to persuade her. But Ray hasn't any use for you now. She liked you at first. But now she doesn't. So what can I do?" </p> <p> "You can make her marry me," replied Lawson. </p> <p> "Make that girl do what she doesn't want to? It couldn't be done even if I tried. And I don't believe I'll try. I haven't the highest opinion of you as a prospective son-in-law, Floyd. But if Ray loved you I would consent. We'd all go away together before this damned miserable business is out. Then she'd never know. And maybe you might be more like you used to be before the West ruined you. But as matters stand, you fight your own game with her. And I'll tell you now you'll lose." </p> <p> "What'd you want to let her come out here for?" demanded Lawson, hotly. "It was a dead mistake. I've lost my head over her. I'll have her or die. Don't you think if she was my wife I'd soon pull myself together? Since she came we've none of us been right. And the gang has put up a holler. No, Longstreth, we've got to settle things to-night." </p> <p> "Well, we can settle what Ray's concerned in, right now," replied Longstreth, rising. "Come on; we'll ask her. See where you stand." </p> <p> They went out, leaving the door open. Duane dropped down to rest himself and to wait. He would have liked to hear Miss Longstreth's answer. But he could guess what it would be. Lawson appeared to be all Duane had thought him, and he believed he was going to find out presently that he was worse. </p> <p> The men seemed to be absent a good while, though that feeling might have been occasioned by Duane's thrilling interest and anxiety. Finally he heard heavy steps. Lawson came in alone. He was leaden-faced, humiliated. Then something abject in him gave place to rage. He strode the room; he cursed. Then Longstreth returned, now appreciably calmer. Duane could not but decide that he felt relief at the evident rejection of Lawson's proposal. </p> <p> "Don't fuss about it, Floyd," he said. "You see I can't help it. We're pretty wild out here, but I can't rope my daughter and give her to you as I would an unruly steer." </p> <p> "Longstreth, I can MAKE her marry me," declared Lawson, thickly. </p> <p> "How?" </p> <p> "You know the hold I got on you&mdash;the deal that made you boss of this rustler gang?" </p> <p> "It isn't likely I'd forget," replied Longstreth, grimly. </p> <p> "I can go to Ray, tell her that, make her believe I'd tell it broadcast&mdash;tell this ranger&mdash;unless she'd marry me." </p> <p> Lawson spoke breathlessly, with haggard face and shadowed eyes. He had no shame. He was simply in the grip of passion. Longstreth gazed with dark, controlled fury at this relative. In that look Duane saw a strong, unscrupulous man fallen into evil ways, but still a man. It betrayed Lawson to be the wild and passionate weakling. Duane seemed to see also how during all the years of association this strong man had upheld the weak one. But that time had gone for ever, both in intent on Longstreth's part and in possibility. Lawson, like the great majority of evil and unrestrained men on the border, had reached a point where influence was futile. Reason had degenerated. He saw only himself. </p> <p> "But, Floyd, Ray's the one person on earth who must never know I'm a rustler, a thief, a red-handed ruler of the worst gang on the border," replied Longstreth, impressively. </p> <p> Floyd bowed his head at that, as if the significance had just occurred to him. But he was not long at a loss. </p> <p> "She's going to find it out sooner or later. I tell you she knows now there's something wrong out here. She's got eyes. Mark what I say." </p> <p> "Ray has changed, I know. But she hasn't any idea yet that her daddy's a boss rustler. Ray's concerned about what she calls my duty as mayor. Also I think she's not satisfied with my explanations in regard to certain property." </p> <p> Lawson halted in his restless walk and leaned against the stone mantelpiece. He had his hands in his pockets. He squared himself as if this was his last stand. He looked desperate, but on the moment showed an absence of his usual nervous excitement. </p> <p> "Longstreth, that may well be true," he said. "No doubt all you say is true. But it doesn't help me. I want the girl. If I don't get her&mdash;I reckon we'll all go to hell!" </p> <p> He might have meant anything, probably meant the worst. He certainly had something more in mind. Longstreth gave a slight start, barely perceptible, like the switch of an awakening tiger. He sat there, head down, stroking his mustache. Almost Duane saw his thought. He had long experience in reading men under stress of such emotion. He had no means to vindicate his judgment, but his conviction was that Longstreth right then and there decided that the thing to do was to kill Lawson. For Duane's part he wondered that Longstreth had not come to such a conclusion before. Not improbably the advent of his daughter had put Longstreth in conflict with himself. </p> <p> Suddenly he threw off a somber cast of countenance, and he began to talk. He talked swiftly, persuasively, yet Duane imagined he was talking to smooth Lawson's passion for the moment. Lawson no more caught the fateful significance of a line crossed, a limit reached, a decree decided than if he had not been present. He was obsessed with himself. How, Duane wondered, had a man of his mind ever lived so long and gone so far among the exacting conditions of the Southwest? The answer was, perhaps, that Longstreth had guided him, upheld him, protected him. The coming of Ray Longstreth had been the entering-wedge of dissension. </p> <p> "You're too impatient," concluded Longstreth. "You'll ruin any chance of happiness if you rush Ray. She might be won. If you told her who I am she'd hate you for ever. She might marry you to save me, but she'd hate you. That isn't the way. Wait. Play for time. Be different with her. Cut out your drinking. She despises that. Let's plan to sell out here&mdash;stock, ranch, property&mdash;and leave the country. Then you'd have a show with her." </p> <p> "I told you we've got to stick," growled Lawson. "The gang won't stand for our going. It can't be done unless you want to sacrifice everything." </p> <p> "You mean double-cross the men? Go without their knowing? Leave them here to face whatever comes?" </p> <p> "I mean just that." </p> <p> "I'm bad enough, but not that bad," returned Longstreth. "If I can't get the gang to let me off, I'll stay and face the music. All the same, Lawson, did it ever strike you that most of the deals the last few years have been YOURS?" </p> <p> "Yes. If I hadn't rung them in there wouldn't have been any. You've had cold feet, and especially since this ranger has been here." </p> <p> "Well, call it cold feet if you like. But I call it sense. We reached our limit long ago. We began by rustling a few cattle&mdash;at a time when rustling was laughed at. But as our greed grew so did our boldness. Then came the gang, the regular trips, the one thing and another till, before we knew it&mdash;before I knew it&mdash;we had shady deals, holdups, and MURDERS on our record. Then we HAD to go on. Too late to turn back!" </p> <p> "I reckon we've all said that. None of the gang wants to quit. They all think, and I think, we can't be touched. We may be blamed, but nothing can be proved. We're too strong." </p> <p> "There's where you're dead wrong," rejoined Longstreth, emphatically. "I imagined that once, not long ago. I was bullheaded. Who would ever connect Granger Longstreth with a rustler gang? I've changed my mind. I've begun to think. I've reasoned out things. We're crooked, and we can't last. It's the nature of life, even here, for conditions to grow better. The wise deal for us would be to divide equally and leave the country, all of us." </p> <p> "But you and I have all the stock&mdash;all the gain," protested Lawson. </p> <p> "I'll split mine." </p> <p> "I won't&mdash;that settles that," added Lawson, instantly. </p> <p> Longstreth spread wide his hands as if it was useless to try to convince this man. Talking had not increased his calmness, and he now showed more than impatience. A dull glint gleamed deep in his eyes. </p> <p> "Your stock and property will last a long time&mdash;do you lots of good when this ranger&mdash;" </p> <p> "Bah!" hoarsely croaked Lawson. The ranger's name was a match applied to powder. "Haven't I told you he'd be dead soon&mdash;any time&mdash;same as Laramie is?" </p> <p> "Yes, you mentioned the&mdash;the supposition," replied Longstreth, sarcastically. "I inquired, too, just how that very desired event was to be brought about." </p> <p> "The gang will lay him out." </p> <p> "Bah!" retorted Longstreth, in turn. He laughed contemptuously. </p> <p> "Floyd, don't be a fool. You've been on the border for ten years. You've packed a gun and you've used it. You've been with rustlers when they killed their men. You've been present at many fights. But you never in all that time saw a man like this ranger. You haven't got sense enough to see him right if you had a chance. Neither have any of you. The only way to get rid of him is for the gang to draw on him, all at once. Then he's going to drop some of them." </p> <p> "Longstreth, you say that like a man who wouldn't care much if he did drop some of them," declared Lawson; and now he was sarcastic. </p> <p> "To tell you the truth, I wouldn't," returned the other, bluntly. "I'm pretty sick of this mess." </p> <p> Lawson cursed in amazement. His emotions were all out of proportion to his intelligence. He was not at all quick-witted. Duane had never seen a vainer or more arrogant man. </p> <p> "Longstreth, I don't like your talk," he said. </p> <p> "If you don't like the way I talk you know what you can do," replied Longstreth, quickly. He stood up then, cool and quiet, with flash of eyes and set of lips that told Duane he was dangerous. </p> <p> "Well, after all, that's neither here nor there," went on Lawson, unconsciously cowed by the other. "The thing is, do I get the girl?" </p> <p> "Not by any means except her consent." </p> <p> "You'll not make her marry me?" </p> <p> "No. No," replied Longstreth, his voice still cold, low-pitched. </p> <p> "All right. Then I'll make her." </p> <p> Evidently Longstreth understood the man before him so well that he wasted no more words. Duane knew what Lawson never dreamed of, and that was that Longstreth had a gun somewhere within reach and meant to use it. Then heavy footsteps sounded outside tramping upon the porch. Duane might have been mistaken, but he believed those footsteps saved Lawson's life. </p> <p> "There they are," said Lawson, and he opened the door. </p> <p> Five masked men entered. They all wore coats hiding any weapons. A big man with burly shoulders shook hands with Longstreth, and the others stood back. </p> <p> The atmosphere of that room had changed. Lawson might have been a nonentity for all he counted. Longstreth was another man&mdash;a stranger to Duane. If he had entertained a hope of freeing himself from this band, of getting away to a safer country, he abandoned it at the very sight of these men. There was power here, and he was bound. </p> <p> The big man spoke in low, hoarse whispers, and at this all the others gathered around him close to the table. There were evidently some signs of membership not plain to Duane. Then all the heads were bent over the table. Low voices spoke, queried, answered, argued. By straining his ears Duane caught a word here and there. They were planning, and they were brief. Duane gathered they were to have a rendezvous at or near Ord. </p> <p> Then the big man, who evidently was the leader of the present convention, got up to depart. He went as swiftly as he had come, and was followed by his comrades. Longstreth prepared for a quiet smoke. Lawson seemed uncommunicative and unsociable. He smoked fiercely and drank continually. All at once he straightened up as if listening. </p> <p> "What's that?" he called, suddenly. </p> <p> Duane's strained ears were pervaded by a slight rustling sound. </p> <p> "Must be a rat," replied Longstreth. </p> <p> The rustle became a rattle. </p> <p> "Sounds like a rattlesnake to me," said Lawson. </p> <p> Longstreth got up from the table and peered round the room. </p> <p> Just at that instant Duane felt an almost inappreciable movement of the adobe wall which supported him. He could scarcely credit his senses. But the rattle inside Longstreth's room was mingling with little dull thuds of falling dirt. The adobe wall, merely dried mud, was crumbling. Duane distinctly felt a tremor pass through it. Then the blood gushed back to his heart. </p> <p> "What in the hell!" exclaimed Longstreth. </p> <p> "I smell dust," said Lawson, sharply. </p> <p> That was the signal for Duane to drop down from his perch, yet despite his care he made a noise. </p> <p> "Did you hear a step?" queried Longstreth. </p> <p> No one answered. But a heavy piece of the adobe wall fell with a thud. Duane heard it crack, felt it shake. </p> <p> "There's somebody between the walls!" thundered Longstreth. </p> <p> Then a section of the wall fell inward with a crash. Duane began to squeeze his body through the narrow passage toward the patio. </p> <p> "Hear him!" yelled Lawson. "This side!" </p> <p> "No, he's going that way," yelled Longstreth. </p> <p> The tramp of heavy boots lent Duane the strength of desperation. He was not shirking a fight, but to be cornered like a trapped coyote was another matter. He almost tore his clothes off in that passage. The dust nearly stifled him. When he burst into the patio it was not a single instant too soon. But one deep gasp of breath revived him and he was up, gun in hand, running for the outlet into the court. Thumping footsteps turned him back. While there was a chance to get away he did not want to fight. He thought he heard someone running into the patio from the other end. He stole along, and coming to a door, without any idea of where it might lead, he softly pushed it open a little way and slipped in. </p> <p>
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