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Lone Star Ranger, The

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<SPAN name="link2HCH0024" id="link2HCH0024"> <!-- H2 anchor --> </SPAN> </p> <div style="height: 4em;"> <br /><br /><br /><br /> </div> <h2> CHAPTER XXIV </h2> <p> On the morning of the twenty-sixth Duane rode into Bradford in time to catch the early train. His wounds did not seriously incapacitate him. Longstreth was with him. And Miss Longstreth and Ruth Herbert would not be left behind. They were all leaving Fairdale for ever. Longstreth had turned over the whole of his property to Morton, who was to divide it as he and his comrades believed just. Duane had left Fairdale with his party by night, passed through Sanderson in the early hours of dawn, and reached Bradford as he had planned. </p> <p> That fateful morning found Duane outwardly calm, but inwardly he was in a tumult. He wanted to rush to Val Verde. Would Captain MacNelly be there with his rangers, as Duane had planned for them to be? Memory of that tawny Poggin returned with strange passion. Duane had borne hours and weeks and months of waiting, had endured the long hours of the outlaw, but now he had no patience. The whistle of the train made him leap. </p> <p> It was a fast train, yet the ride seemed slow. </p> <p> Duane, disliking to face Longstreth and the passengers in the car, changed his seat to one behind his prisoner. They had seldom spoken. Longstreth sat with bowed head, deep in thought. The girls sat in a seat near by and were pale but composed. Occasionally the train halted briefly at a station. The latter half of that ride Duane had observed a wagon-road running parallel with the railroad, sometimes right alongside, at others near or far away. When the train was about twenty miles from Val Verde Duane espied a dark group of horsemen trotting eastward. His blood beat like a hammer at his temples. The gang! He thought he recognized the tawny Poggin and felt a strange inward contraction. He thought he recognized the clean-cut Blossom Kane, the black-bearded giant Boldt, the red-faced Panhandle Smith, and Fletcher. There was another man strange to him. Was that Knell? No! it could not have been Knell. </p> <p> Duane leaned over the seat and touched Longstreth on the shoulder. </p> <p> "Look!" he whispered. Cheseldine was stiff. He had already seen. </p> <p> The train flashed by; the outlaw gang receded out of range of sight. </p> <p> "Did you notice Knell wasn't with them?" whispered Duane. </p> <p> Duane did not speak to Longstreth again till the train stopped at Val Verde. </p> <p> They got off the car, and the girls followed as naturally as ordinary travelers. The station was a good deal larger than that at Bradford, and there was considerable action and bustle incident to the arrival of the train. </p> <p> Duane's sweeping gaze searched faces, rested upon a man who seemed familiar. This fellow's look, too, was that of one who knew Duane, but was waiting for a sign, a cue. Then Duane recognized him&mdash;MacNelly, clean-shaven. Without mustache he appeared different, younger. </p> <p> When MacNelly saw that Duane intended to greet him, to meet him, he hurried forward. A keen light flashed from his eyes. He was glad, eager, yet suppressing himself, and the glances he sent back and forth from Duane to Longstreth were questioning, doubtful. Certainly Longstreth did not look the part of an outlaw. </p> <p> "Duane! Lord, I'm glad to see you," was the Captain's greeting. Then at closer look into Duane's face his warmth fled&mdash;something he saw there checked his enthusiasm, or at least its utterance. </p> <p> "MacNelly, shake hand with Cheseldine," said Duane, low-voiced. </p> <p> The ranger captain stood dumb, motionless. But he saw Longstreth's instant action, and awkwardly he reached for the outstretched hand. </p> <p> "Any of your men down here?" queried Duane, sharply. </p> <p> "No. They're up-town." </p> <p> "Come. MacNelly, you walk with him. We've ladies in the party. I'll come behind with them." </p> <p> They set off up-town. Longstreth walked as if he were with friends on the way to dinner. The girls were mute. MacNelly walked like a man in a trance. There was not a word spoken in four blocks. </p> <p> Presently Duane espied a stone building on a corner of the broad street. There was a big sign, "Rancher's Bank." </p> <p> "There's the hotel," said MacNelly. "Some of my men are there. We've scattered around." </p> <p> They crossed the street, went through office and lobby, and then Duane asked MacNelly to take them to a private room. Without a word the Captain complied. When they were all inside Duane closed the door, and, drawing a deep breath as if of relief, he faced them calmly. </p> <p> "Miss Longstreth, you and Miss Ruth try to make yourselves comfortable now," he said. "And don't be distressed." Then he turned to his captain. "MacNelly, this girl is the daughter of the man I've brought to you, and this one is his niece." </p> <p> Then Duane briefly related Longstreth's story, and, though he did not spare the rustler chief, he was generous. </p> <p> "When I went after Longstreth," concluded Duane, "it was either to kill him or offer him freedom on conditions. So I chose the latter for his daughter's sake. He has already disposed of all his property. I believe he'll live up to the conditions. He's to leave Texas never to return. The name Cheseldine has been a mystery, and now it'll fade." </p> <p> A few moments later Duane followed MacNelly to a large room, like a hall, and here were men reading and smoking. Duane knew them&mdash;rangers! </p> <p> MacNelly beckoned to his men. </p> <p> "Boys, here he is." </p> <p> "How many men have you?" asked Duane. </p> <p> "Fifteen." </p> <p> MacNelly almost embraced Duane, would probably have done so but for the dark grimness that seemed to be coming over the man. Instead he glowed, he sputtered, he tried to talk, to wave his hands. He was beside himself. And his rangers crowded closer, eager, like hounds ready to run. They all talked at once, and the word most significant and frequent in their speech was "outlaws." </p> <p> MacNelly clapped his fist in his hand. </p> <p> "This'll make the adjutant sick with joy. Maybe we won't have it on the Governor! We'll show them about the ranger service. Duane! how'd you ever do it?" </p> <p> "Now, Captain, not the half nor the quarter of this job's done. The gang's coming down the road. I saw them from the train. They'll ride into town on the dot&mdash;two-thirty." </p> <p> "How many?" asked MacNelly. </p> <p> "Poggin, Blossom Kane, Panhandle Smith, Boldt, Jim Fletcher, and another man I don't know. These are the picked men of Cheseldine's gang. I'll bet they'll be the fastest, hardest bunch you rangers ever faced." </p> <p> "Poggin&mdash;that's the hard nut to crack! I've heard their records since I've been in Val Verde. Where's Knell? They say he's a boy, but hell and blazes!" </p> <p> "Knell's dead." </p> <p> "Ah!" exclaimed MacNelly, softly. Then he grew businesslike, cool, and of harder aspect. "Duane, it's your game to-day. I'm only a ranger under orders. We're all under your orders. We've absolute faith in you. Make your plan quick, so I can go around and post the boys who're not here." </p> <p> "You understand there's no sense in trying to arrest Poggin, Kane, and that lot?" queried Duane. </p> <p> "No, I don't understand that," replied MacNelly, bluntly. </p> <p> "It can't be done. The drop can't be got on such men. If you meet them they shoot, and mighty quick and straight. Poggin! That outlaw has no equal with a gun&mdash;unless&mdash;He's got to be killed quick. They'll all have to be killed. They're all bad, desperate, know no fear, are lightning in action." </p> <p> "Very well, Duane; then it's a fight. That'll be easier, perhaps. The boys are spoiling for a fight. Out with your plan, now." </p> <p> "Put one man at each end of this street, just at the edge of town. Let him hide there with a rifle to block the escape of any outlaw that we might fail to get. I had a good look at the bank building. It's well situated for our purpose. Put four men up in that room over the bank&mdash;four men, two at each open window. Let them hide till the game begins. They want to be there so in case these foxy outlaws get wise before they're down on the ground or inside the bank. The rest of your men put inside behind the counters, where they'll hide. Now go over to the bank, spring the thing on the bank officials, and don't let them shut up the bank. You want their aid. Let them make sure of their gold. But the clerks and cashier ought to be at their desks or window when Poggin rides up. He'll glance in before he gets down. They make no mistakes, these fellows. We must be slicker than they are, or lose. When you get the bank people wise, send your men over one by one. No hurry, no excitement, no unusual thing to attract notice in the bank." </p> <p> "All right. That's great. Tell me, where do you intend to wait?" </p> <p> Duane heard MacNelly's question, and it struck him peculiarly. He had seemed to be planning and speaking mechanically. As he was confronted by the fact it nonplussed him somewhat, and he became thoughtful, with lowered head. </p> <p> "Where'll you wait, Duane?" insisted MacNelly, with keen eyes speculating. </p> <p> "I'll wait in front, just inside the door," replied Duane, with an effort. </p> <p> "Why?" demanded the Captain. </p> <p> "Well," began Duane, slowly, "Poggin will get down first and start in. But the others won't be far behind. They'll not get swift till inside. The thing is&mdash;they MUSTN'T get clear inside, because the instant they do they'll pull guns. That means death to somebody. If we can we want to stop them just at the door." </p> <p> "But will you hide?" asked MacNelly. </p> <p> "Hide!" The idea had not occurred to Duane. </p> <p> "There's a wide-open doorway, a sort of round hall, a vestibule, with steps leading up to the bank. There's a door in the vestibule, too. It leads somewhere. We can put men in there. You can be there." </p> <p> Duane was silent. </p> <p> "See here, Duane," began MacNelly, nervously. "You shan't take any undue risk here. You'll hide with the rest of us?" </p> <p> "No!" The word was wrenched from Duane. </p> <p> MacNelly stared, and then a strange, comprehending light seemed to flit over his face. </p> <p> "Duane, I can give you no orders to-day," he said, distinctly. "I'm only offering advice. Need you take any more risks? You've done a grand job for the service&mdash;already. You've paid me a thousand times for that pardon. You've redeemed yourself.&mdash;The Governor, the adjutant-general&mdash;the whole state will rise up and honor you. The game's almost up. We'll kill these outlaws, or enough of them to break for ever their power. I say, as a ranger, need you take more risk than your captain?" </p> <p> Still Duane remained silent. He was locked between two forces. And one, a tide that was bursting at its bounds, seemed about to overwhelm him. Finally that side of him, the retreating self, the weaker, found a voice. </p> <p> "Captain, you want this job to be sure?" he asked. </p> <p> "Certainly." </p> <p> "I've told you the way. I alone know the kind of men to be met. Just WHAT I'll do or WHERE I'll be I can't say yet. In meetings like this the moment decides. But I'll be there!" </p> <p> MacNelly spread wide his hands, looked helplessly at his curious and sympathetic rangers, and shook his head. </p> <p> "Now you've done your work&mdash;laid the trap&mdash;is this strange move of yours going to be fair to Miss Longstreth?" asked MacNelly, in significant low voice. </p> <p> Like a great tree chopped at the roots Duane vibrated to that. He looked up as if he had seen a ghost. </p> <p> Mercilessly the ranger captain went on: "You can win her, Duane! Oh, you can't fool me. I was wise in a minute. Fight with us from cover&mdash;then go back to her. You will have served the Texas Rangers as no other man has. I'll accept your resignation. You'll be free, honored, happy. That girl loves you! I saw it in her eyes. She's&mdash;" </p> <p> But Duane cut him short with a fierce gesture. He lunged up to his feet, and the rangers fell back. Dark, silent, grim as he had been, still there was a transformation singularly more sinister, stranger. </p> <p> "Enough. I'm done," he said, somberly. "I've planned. Do we agree&mdash;or shall I meet Poggin and his gang alone?" </p> <p> MacNelly cursed and again threw up his hands, this time in baffled chagrin. There was deep regret in his dark eyes as they rested upon Duane. </p> <p> Duane was left alone. </p> <p> Never had his mind been so quick, so clear, so wonderful in its understanding of what had heretofore been intricate and elusive impulses of his strange nature. His determination was to meet Poggin; meet him before any one else had a chance&mdash;Poggin first&mdash;and then the others! He was as unalterable in that decision as if on the instant of its acceptance he had become stone. </p> <p> Why? Then came realization. He was not a ranger now. He cared nothing for the state. He had no thought of freeing the community of a dangerous outlaw, of ridding the country of an obstacle to its progress and prosperity. He wanted to kill Poggin. It was significant now that he forgot the other outlaws. He was the gunman, the gun-thrower, the gun-fighter, passionate and terrible. His father's blood, that dark and fierce strain, his mother's spirit, that strong and unquenchable spirit of the surviving pioneer&mdash;these had been in him; and the killings, one after another, the wild and haunted years, had made him, absolutely in spite of his will, the gunman. He realized it now, bitterly, hopelessly. The thing he had intelligence enough to hate he had become. At last he shuddered under the driving, ruthless inhuman blood-lust of the gunman. Long ago he had seemed to seal in a tomb that horror of his kind&mdash;the need, in order to forget the haunting, sleepless presence of his last victim, to go out and kill another. But it was still there in his mind, and now it stalked out, worse, more powerful, magnified by its rest, augmented by the violent passions peculiar and inevitable to that strange, wild product of the Texas frontier&mdash;the gun-fighter. And those passions were so violent, so raw, so base, so much lower than what ought to have existed in a thinking man. Actual pride of his record! Actual vanity in his speed with a gun. Actual jealousy of any rival! </p> <p> Duane could not believe it. But there he was, without a choice. What he had feared for years had become a monstrous reality. Respect for himself, blindness, a certain honor that he had clung to while in outlawry&mdash;all, like scales, seemed to fall away from him. He stood stripped bare, his soul naked&mdash;the soul of Cain. Always since the first brand had been forced and burned upon him he had been ruined. But now with conscience flayed to the quick, yet utterly powerless over this tiger instinct, he was lost. He said it. He admitted it. And at the utter abasement the soul he despised suddenly leaped and quivered with the thought of Ray Longstreth. </p> <p> Then came agony. As he could not govern all the chances of this fatal meeting&mdash;as all his swift and deadly genius must be occupied with Poggin, perhaps in vain&mdash;as hard-shooting men whom he could not watch would be close behind, this almost certainly must be the end of Buck Duane. That did not matter. But he loved the girl. He wanted her. All her sweetness, her fire, and pleading returned to torture him. </p> <p> At that moment the door opened, and Ray Longstreth entered. </p> <p> "Duane," she said, softly. "Captain MacNelly sent me to you." </p> <p> "But you shouldn't have come," replied Duane. </p> <p> "As soon as he told me I would have come whether he wished it or not. You left me&mdash;all of us&mdash;stunned. I had no time to thank you. Oh, I do-with all my soul. It was noble of you. Father is overcome. He didn't expect so much. And he'll be true. But, Duane, I was told to hurry, and here I'm selfishly using time." </p> <p> "Go, then&mdash;and leave me. You mustn't unnerve me now, when there's a desperate game to finish." </p> <p> "Need it be desperate?" she whispered, coming close to him. </p> <p> "Yes; it can't be else." </p> <p> MacNelly had sent her to weaken him; of that Duane was sure. And he felt that she had wanted to come. Her eyes were dark, strained, beautiful, and they shed a light upon Duane he had never seen before. </p> <p> "You're going to take some mad risk," she said. "Let me persuade you not to. You said&mdash;you cared for me&mdash;and I&mdash;oh, Duane&mdash;don't you&mdash;know&mdash;?" </p> <p> The low voice, deep, sweet as an old chord, faltered and broke and failed. </p> <p> Duane sustained a sudden shock and an instant of paralyzed confusion of thought. </p> <p> She moved, she swept out her hands, and the wonder of her eyes dimmed in a flood of tears. </p> <p> "My God! You can't care for me?" he cried, hoarsely. </p> <p> Then she met him, hands outstretched. </p> <p> "But I do-I do!" </p> <p> Swift as light Duane caught her and held her to his breast. He stood holding her tight, with the feel of her warm, throbbing breast and the clasp of her arms as flesh and blood realities to fight a terrible fear. He felt her, and for the moment the might of it was stronger than all the demons that possessed him. And he held her as if she had been his soul, his strength on earth, his hope of Heaven, against his lips. </p> <p> The strife of doubt all passed. He found his sight again. And there rushed over him a tide of emotion unutterably sweet and full, strong like an intoxicating wine, deep as his nature, something glorious and terrible as the blaze of the sun to one long in darkness. He had become an outcast, a wanderer, a gunman, a victim of circumstances; he had lost and suffered worse than death in that loss; he had gone down the endless bloody trail, a killer of men, a fugitive whose mind slowly and inevitably closed to all except the instinct to survive and a black despair; and now, with this woman in his arms, her swelling breast against his, in this moment almost of resurrection, he bent under the storm of passion and joy possible only to him who had endured so much. </p> <p> "Do you care&mdash;a little?" he whispered, unsteadily. </p> <p> He bent over her, looking deep into the dark wet eyes. </p> <p> She uttered a low laugh that was half sob, and her arms slipped up to his neck. </p> <p> "A littler Oh, Duane&mdash;Duane&mdash;a great deal!" </p> <p> Their lips met in their first kiss. The sweetness, the fire of her mouth seemed so new, so strange, so irresistible to Duane. His sore and hungry heart throbbed with thick and heavy beats. He felt the outcast's need of love. And he gave up to the enthralling moment. She met him half-way, returned kiss for kiss, clasp for clasp, her face scarlet, her eyes closed, till, her passion and strength spent, she fell back upon his shoulder. </p> <p> Duane suddenly thought she was going to faint. He divined then that she had understood him, would have denied him nothing, not even her life, in that moment. But she was overcome, and he suffered a pang of regret at his unrestraint. </p> <p> Presently she recovered, and she drew only the closer, and leaned upon him with her face upturned. He felt her hands on his, and they were soft, clinging, strong, like steel under velvet. He felt the rise and fall, the warmth of her breast. A tremor ran over him. He tried to draw back, and if he succeeded a little her form swayed with him, pressing closer. She held her face up, and he was compelled to look. It was wonderful now: white, yet glowing, with the red lips parted, and dark eyes alluring. But that was not all. There was passion, unquenchable spirit, woman's resolve deep and mighty. </p> <p> "I love you, Duane!" she said. "For my sake don't go out to meet this outlaw face to face. It's something wild in you. Conquer it if you love me." </p> <p> Duane became suddenly weak, and when he did take her into his arms again he scarcely had strength to lift her to a seat beside him. She seemed more than a dead weight. Her calmness had fled. She was throbbing, palpitating, quivering, with hot wet cheeks and arms that clung to him like vines. She lifted her mouth to his, whispering, "Kiss me!" She meant to change him, hold him. </p> <p> Duane bent down, and her arms went round his neck and drew him close. With his lips on hers he seemed to float away. That kiss closed his eyes, and he could not lift his head. He sat motionless holding her, blind and helpless, wrapped in a sweet dark glory. She kissed him&mdash;one long endless kiss&mdash;or else a thousand times. Her lips, her wet cheeks, her hair, the softness, the fragrance of her, the tender clasp of her arms, the swell of her breast&mdash;all these seemed to inclose him. </p> <p> Duane could not put her from him. He yielded to her lips and arms, watching her, involuntarily returning her caresses, sure now of her intent, fascinated by the sweetness of her, bewildered, almost lost. This was what it was to be loved by a woman. His years of outlawry had blotted out any boyish love he might have known. This was what he had to give up&mdash;all this wonder of her sweet person, this strange fire he feared yet loved, this mate his deep and tortured soul recognized. Never until that moment had he divined the meaning of a woman to a man. That meaning was physical inasmuch that he learned what beauty was, what marvel in the touch of quickening flesh; and it was spiritual in that he saw there might have been for him, under happier circumstances, a life of noble deeds lived for such a woman. </p> <p> "Don't go! Don't go!" she cried, as he started violently. </p> <p> "I must. Dear, good-by! Remember I loved you." </p> <p> He pulled her hands loose from his, stepped back. </p> <p> "Ray, dearest&mdash;I believe&mdash;I'll come back!" he whispered. </p> <p> These last words were falsehood. </p> <p> He reached the door, gave her one last piercing glance, to fix for ever in memory that white face with its dark, staring, tragic eyes. </p> <p> "DUANE!" </p> <p> He fled with that moan like thunder, death, hell in his ears. </p> <p> To forget her, to get back his nerve, he forced into mind the image of Poggin-Poggin, the tawny-haired, the yellow-eyed, like a jaguar, with his rippling muscles. He brought back his sense of the outlaw's wonderful presence, his own unaccountable fear and hate. Yes, Poggin had sent the cold sickness of fear to his marrow. Why, since he hated life so? Poggin was his supreme test. And this abnormal and stupendous instinct, now deep as the very foundation of his life, demanded its wild and fatal issue. There was a horrible thrill in his sudden remembrance that Poggin likewise had been taunted in fear of him. </p> <p> So the dark tide overwhelmed Duane, and when he left the room he was fierce, implacable, steeled to any outcome, quick like a panther, somber as death, in the thrall of his strange passion. </p> <p> There was no excitement in the street. He crossed to the bank corner. A clock inside pointed the hour of two. He went through the door into the vestibule, looked around, passed up the steps into the bank. The clerks were at their desks, apparently busy. But they showed nervousness. The cashier paled at sight of Duane. There were men&mdash;the rangers&mdash;crouching down behind the low partition. All the windows had been removed from the iron grating before the desks. The safe was closed. There was no money in sight. A customer came in, spoke to the cashier, and was told to come to-morrow. </p> <p> Duane returned to the door. He could see far down the street, out into the country. There he waited, and minutes were eternities. He saw no person near him; he heard no sound. He was insulated in his unnatural strain. </p> <p> At a few minutes before half past two a dark, compact body of horsemen appeared far down, turning into the road. They came at a sharp trot&mdash;a group that would have attracted attention anywhere at any time. They came a little faster as they entered town; then faster still; now they were four blocks away, now three, now two. Duane backed down the middle of the vestibule, up the steps, and halted in the center of the wide doorway. </p> <p> There seemed to be a rushing in his ears through which pierced sharp, ringing clip-clop of iron hoofs. He could see only the corner of the street. But suddenly into that shot lean-limbed dusty bay horses. There was a clattering of nervous hoofs pulled to a halt. </p> <p> Duane saw the tawny Poggin speak to his companions. He dismounted quickly. They followed suit. They had the manner of ranchers about to conduct some business. No guns showed. Poggin started leisurely for the bank door, quickening step a little. The others, close together, came behind him. Blossom Kane had a bag in his left hand. Jim Fletcher was left at the curb, and he had already gathered up the bridles. </p> <p> Poggin entered the vestibule first, with Kane on one side, Boldt on the other, a little in his rear. </p> <p> As he strode in he saw Duane. </p> <p> "HELL'S FIRE!" he cried. </p> <p> Something inside Duane burst, piercing all of him with cold. Was it that fear? </p> <p> "BUCK DUANE!" echoed Kane. </p> <p> One instant Poggin looked up and Duane looked down. </p> <p> Like a striking jaguar Poggin moved. Almost as quickly Duane threw his arm. </p> <p> The guns boomed almost together. </p> <p> Duane felt a blow just before he pulled trigger. His thoughts came fast, like the strange dots before his eyes. His rising gun had loosened in his hand. Poggin had drawn quicker! A tearing agony encompassed his breast. He pulled&mdash;pulled&mdash;at random. Thunder of booming shots all about him! Red flashes, jets of smoke, shrill yells! He was sinking. The end; yes, the end! With fading sight he saw Kane go down, then Boldt. But supreme torture, bitterer than death, Poggin stood, mane like a lion's, back to the wall, bloody-faced, grand, with his guns spouting red! </p> <p> All faded, darkened. The thunder deadened. Duane fell, seemed floating. There it drifted&mdash;Ray Longstreth's sweet face, white, with dark, tragic eyes, fading from his sight... fading.. . fading... </p> <p>
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