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Lone Star Ranger, The

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<SPAN name="link2HCH0023" id="link2HCH0023"> <!-- H2 anchor --> </SPAN> </p> <div style="height: 4em;"> <br /><br /><br /><br /> </div> <h2> CHAPTER XXIII </h2> <p> Duane returned to Fairdale and camped in the mesquite till the twenty-third of the month. The few days seemed endless. All he could think of was that the hour in which he must disgrace Ray Longstreth was slowly but inexorably coming. In that waiting time he learned what love was and also duty. When the day at last dawned he rode like one possessed down the rough slope, hurdling the stones and crashing through the brush, with a sound in his ears that was not all the rush of the wind. Something dragged at him. </p> <p> Apparently one side of his mind was unalterably fixed, while the other was a hurrying conglomeration of flashes of thought, reception of sensations. He could not get calmness. By and by, almost involuntarily, he hurried faster on. Action seemed to make his state less oppressive; it eased the weight. But the farther he went on the harder it was to continue. Had he turned his back upon love, happiness, perhaps on life itself? </p> <p> There seemed no use to go on farther until he was absolutely sure of himself. Duane received a clear warning thought that such work as seemed haunting and driving him could never be carried out in the mood under which he labored. He hung on to that thought. Several times he slowed up, then stopped, only to go on again. At length, as he mounted a low ridge, Fairdale lay bright and green before him not far away, and the sight was a conclusive check. There were mesquites on the ridge, and Duane sought the shade beneath them. It was the noon-hour, with hot, glary sun and no wind. Here Duane had to have out his fight. Duane was utterly unlike himself; he could not bring the old self back; he was not the same man he once had been. But he could understand why. It was because of Ray Longstreth. Temptation assailed him. To have her his wife! It was impossible. The thought was insidiously alluring. Duane pictured a home. He saw himself riding through the cotton and rice and cane, home to a stately old mansion, where long-eared hounds bayed him welcome, and a woman looked for him and met him with happy and beautiful smile. There might&mdash;there would be children. And something new, strange, confounding with its emotion, came to life deep in Duane's heart. There would be children! Ray their mother! The kind of life a lonely outcast always yearned for and never had! He saw it all, felt it all. </p> <p> But beyond and above all other claims came Captain MacNelly's. It was then there was something cold and death-like in Duane's soul. For he knew, whatever happened, of one thing he was sure&mdash;he would have to kill either Longstreth or Lawson. Longstreth might be trapped into arrest; but Lawson had no sense, no control, no fear. He would snarl like a panther and go for his gun, and he would have to be killed. This, of all consummations, was the one to be calculated upon. </p> <p> Duane came out of it all bitter and callous and sore&mdash;in the most fitting of moods to undertake a difficult and deadly enterprise. He had fallen upon his old strange, futile dreams, now rendered poignant by reason of love. He drove away those dreams. In their places came the images of the olive-skinned Longstreth with his sharp eyes, and the dark, evil-faced Lawson, and then returned tenfold more thrilling and sinister the old strange passion to meet Poggin. </p> <p> It was about one o'clock when Duane rode into Fairdale. The streets for the most part were deserted. He went directly to find Morton and Zimmer. He found them at length, restless, somber, anxious, but unaware of the part he had played at Ord. They said Longstreth was home, too. It was possible that Longstreth had arrived home in ignorance. </p> <p> Duane told them to be on hand in town with their men in case he might need them, and then with teeth locked he set off for Longstreth's ranch. </p> <p> Duane stole through the bushes and trees, and when nearing the porch he heard loud, angry, familiar voices. Longstreth and Lawson were quarreling again. How Duane's lucky star guided him! He had no plan of action, but his brain was equal to a hundred lightning-swift evolutions. He meant to take any risk rather than kill Longstreth. Both of the men were out on the porch. Duane wormed his way to the edge of the shrubbery and crouched low to watch for his opportunity. </p> <p> Longstreth looked haggard and thin. He was in his shirt-sleeves, and he had come out with a gun in his hand. This he laid on a table near the wall. He wore no belt. </p> <p> Lawson was red, bloated, thick-lipped, all fiery and sweaty from drink, though sober on the moment, and he had the expression of a desperate man in his last stand. It was his last stand, though he was ignorant of that. </p> <p> "What's your news? You needn't be afraid of my feelings," said Lawson. </p> <p> "Ray confessed to an interest in this ranger," replied Longstreth. </p> <p> Duane thought Lawson would choke. He was thick-necked anyway, and the rush of blood made him tear at the soft collar of his shirt. Duane awaited his chance, patient, cold, all his feelings shut in a vise. </p> <p> "But why should your daughter meet this ranger?" demanded Lawson, harshly. </p> <p> "She's in love with him, and he's in love with her." </p> <p> Duane reveled in Lawson's condition. The statement might have had the force of a juggernaut. Was Longstreth sincere? What was his game? </p> <p> Lawson, finding his voice, cursed Ray, cursed the ranger, then Longstreth. </p> <p> "You damned selfish fool!" cried Longstreth, in deep bitter scorn. "All you think of is yourself&mdash;your loss of the girl. Think once of ME&mdash;my home&mdash;my life!" </p> <p> Then the connection subtly put out by Longstreth apparently dawned upon the other. Somehow through this girl her father and cousin were to be betrayed. Duane got that impression, though he could not tell how true it was. Certainly Lawson's jealousy was his paramount emotion. </p> <p> "To hell with you!" burst out Lawson, incoherently. He was frenzied. "I'll have her, or nobody else will!" </p> <p> "You never will," returned Longstreth, stridently. "So help me God I'd rather see her the ranger's wife than yours!" </p> <p> While Lawson absorbed that shock Longstreth leaned toward him, all of hate and menace in his mien. </p> <p> "Lawson, you made me what I am," continued Longstreth. "I backed you&mdash;shielded you. YOU'RE Cheseldine&mdash;if the truth is told! Now it's ended. I quit you. I'm done!" </p> <p> Their gray passion-corded faces were still as stones. </p> <p> "GENTLEMEN!" Duane called in far-reaching voice as he stepped out. "YOU'RE BOTH DONE!" </p> <p> They wheeled to confront Duane. </p> <p> "Don't move! Not a muscle! Not a finger!" he warned. </p> <p> Longstreth read what Lawson had not the mind to read. His face turned from gray to ashen. </p> <p> "What d'ye mean?" yelled Lawson, fiercely, shrilly. It was not in him to obey a command, to see impending death. </p> <p> All quivering and strung, yet with perfect control, Duane raised his left hand to turn back a lapel of his open vest. The silver star flashed brightly. </p> <p> Lawson howled like a dog. With barbarous and insane fury, with sheer impotent folly, he swept a clawing hand for his gun. Duane's shot broke his action. </p> <p> Before Lawson ever tottered, before he loosed the gun, Longstreth leaped behind him, clasped him with left arm, quick as lightning jerked the gun from both clutching fingers and sheath. Longstreth protected himself with the body of the dead man. Duane saw red flashes, puffs of smoke; he heard quick reports. Something stung his left arm. Then a blow like wind, light of sound yet shocking in impact, struck him, staggered him. The hot rend of lead followed the blow. Duane's heart seemed to explode, yet his mind kept extraordinarily clear and rapid. </p> <p> Duane heard Longstreth work the action of Lawson's gun. He heard the hammer click, fall upon empty shells. Longstreth had used up all the loads in Lawson's gun. He cursed as a man cursed at defeat. Duane waited, cool and sure now. Longstreth tried to lift the dead man, to edge him closer toward the table where his own gun lay. But, considering the peril of exposing himself, he found the task beyond him. He bent peering at Duane under Lawson's arm, which flopped out from his side. Longstreth's eyes were the eyes of a man who meant to kill. There was never any mistaking the strange and terrible light of eyes like those. More than once Duane had a chance to aim at them, at the top of Longstreth's head, at a strip of his side. </p> <p> Longstreth flung Lawson's body off. But even as it dropped, before Longstreth could leap, as he surely intended, for the gun, Duane covered him, called piercingly to him: </p> <p> "Don't jump for the gun! Don't! I'll kill you! Sure as God I'll kill you!" </p> <p> Longstreth stood perhaps ten feet from the table where his gun lay Duane saw him calculating chances. He was game. He had the courage that forced Duane to respect him. Duane just saw him measure the distance to that gun. He was magnificent. He meant to do it. Duane would have to kill him. </p> <p> "Longstreth, listen," cried Duane, swiftly. "The game's up. You're done. But think of your daughter! I'll spare your life&mdash;I'll try to get you freedom on one condition. For her sake! I've got you nailed&mdash;all the proofs. There lies Lawson. You're alone. I've Morton and men to my aid. Give up. Surrender. Consent to demands, and I'll spare you. Maybe I can persuade MacNelly to let you go free back to your old country. It's for Ray's sake! Her life, perhaps her happiness, can be saved! Hurry, man! Your answer!" </p> <p> "Suppose I refuse?" he queried, with a dark and terrible earnestness. </p> <p> "Then I'll kill you in your tracks! You can't move a hand! Your word or death! Hurry, Longstreth! Be a man! For her sake! Quick! Another second now&mdash;I'll kill you!" </p> <p> "All right, Buck Duane, I give my word," he said, and deliberately walked to the chair and fell into it. </p> <p> Longstreth looked strangely at the bloody blot on Duane's shoulder. </p> <p> "There come the girls!" he suddenly exclaimed. "Can you help me drag Lawson inside? They mustn't see him." </p> <p> Duane was facing down the porch toward the court and corrals. Miss Longstreth and Ruth had come in sight, were swiftly approaching, evidently alarmed. The two men succeeded in drawing Lawson into the house before the girls saw him. </p> <p> "Duane, you're not hard hit?" said Longstreth. </p> <p> "Reckon not," replied Duane. </p> <p> "I'm sorry. If only you could have told me sooner! Lawson, damn him! Always I've split over him!" </p> <p> "But the last time, Longstreth." </p> <p> "Yes, and I came near driving you to kill me, too. Duane, you talked me out of it. For Ray's sake! She'll be in here in a minute. This'll be harder than facing a gun." </p> <p> "Hard now. But I hope it'll turn out all right." </p> <p> "Duane, will you do me a favor?" he asked, and he seemed shamefaced. </p> <p> "Sure." </p> <p> "Let Ray and Ruth think Lawson shot you. He's dead. It can't matter. Duane, the old side of my life is coming back. It's been coming. It'll be here just about when she enters this room. And, by God, I'd change places with Lawson if I could!" </p> <p> "Glad you&mdash;said that, Longstreth," replied Duane. "And sure&mdash;Lawson plugged me. It's our secret." </p> <p> Just then Ray and Ruth entered the room. Duane heard two low cries, so different in tone, and he saw two white faces. Ray came to his side, She lifted a shaking hand to point at the blood upon his breast. White and mute, she gazed from that to her father. </p> <p> "Papa!" cried Ray, wringing her hands. </p> <p> "Don't give way," he replied, huskily. "Both you girls will need your nerve. Duane isn't badly hurt. But Floyd is&mdash;is dead. Listen. Let me tell it quick. There's been a fight. It&mdash;it was Lawson&mdash;it was Lawson's gun that shot Duane. Duane let me off. In fact, Ray, he saved me. I'm to divide my property&mdash;return so far as possible what I've stolen&mdash;leave Texas at once with Duane, under arrest. He says maybe he can get MacNelly, the ranger captain, to let me go. For your sake!" </p> <p> She stood there, realizing her deliverance, with the dark and tragic glory of her eyes passing from her father to Duane. </p> <p> "You must rise above this," said Duane to her. "I expected this to ruin you. But your father is alive. He will live it down. I'm sure I can promise you he'll be free. Perhaps back there in Louisiana the dishonor will never be known. This country is far from your old home. And even in San Antonio and Austin a man's evil repute means little. Then the line between a rustler and a rancher is hard to draw in these wild border days. Rustling is stealing cattle, and I once heard a well-known rancher say that all rich cattlemen had done a little stealing Your father drifted out here, and, like a good many others, he succeeded. It's perhaps just as well not to split hairs, to judge him by the law and morality of a civilized country. Some way or other he drifted in with bad men. Maybe a deal that was honest somehow tied his hands. This matter of land, water, a few stray head of stock had to be decided out of court. I'm sure in his case he never realized where he was drifting. Then one thing led to another, until he was face to face with dealing that took on crooked form. To protect himself he bound men to him. And so the gang developed. Many powerful gangs have developed that way out here. He could not control them. He became involved with them. And eventually their dealings became deliberately and boldly dishonest. That meant the inevitable spilling of blood sooner or later, and so he grew into the leader because he was the strongest. Whatever he is to be judged for, I think he could have been infinitely worse." </p> <p>
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