A texas ranger, p.2
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       A Texas Ranger, p.2

           William MacLeod Raine


  The sun had declined almost to a saddle in the Cuesta del Burro whenthe sleeper reopened his eyes. Even before he had shaken himself freeof sleep he was uneasily aware of something wrong. Hazily the sound ofvoices drifted to him across an immense space. Blurred figures crossedbefore his unfocused gaze.

  The first thing he saw clearly was the roan, still grazing in the circleof its picket-rope. Beside the bronco were two men looking the animalover critically.

  "Been going some," he heard one remark, pointing at the same time to thesweat-stains that streaked the shoulders and flanks.

  "If he had me on his back he'd still be burning the wind, me being inhis boots," returned the second, with a grating laugh, jerking his headtoward the sleeper. "Whatever led the durned fool to stop this side ofthe line beats me."

  "If he was hiking for Chihuahua he's been hitting a mighty crookedtrail. I don't savvy it, him knowing the country as well as they say hedoes," the first speaker made answer.

  The traveler's circling eye now discovered two more men, each of themcovering him with a rifle. A voice from the rear assured him there wasalso a fifth member to the party.

  "Look out! He's awake," it warned.

  The young man's hand inadvertently moved toward his revolver-butt. Thisdrew a sharp imperative order from one of the men in front.

  "Throw up your hands, and damn quick!"

  "You seem to have the call, gentlemen," he smiled. "Would you mindtelling me what it's all about?"

  "You know what it's all about as well as we do. Collect his gun, Tom."

  "This hold-up business seems to be a habit in this section. Second timeto-day I've been the victim of it," said the victim easily.

  "It will be the last," retorted one of the men grimly.

  "If you're after the mazuma you've struck a poor bank."

  "You've got your nerve," cried one of the men in a rage; and anotherdemanded: "Where did you get that hawss?"

  "Why, I got it--" The young man stopped in the middle of his sentence.His jaw clamped and his eyes grew hard. "I expect you better explainwhat right you got to ask that question."

  The man laughed without cordiality. "Seeing as I have owned it threeyears I allow I have some right."

  "What's the use of talking? He's the man we want, broke in anotherimpatiently.

  "Who is the man you want?" asked their prisoner.

  "You're the man we want, Jim Kinney."

  "Wrong guess. My name is Larry Neill. I'm from the Panhandle and I'venever been in this part of the country till two days ago."

  "You may have a dozen names. We don't care what you call yourself. Ofcourse you would deny being the man we're after. But that don't go withus."

  "All right. Take me back to Fort Lincoln, or take me to the prisonofficials. They will tell you whether I am the man."

  The leader of the party pounced on his slip. "Who mentioned prison? Whotold you we wanted an escaped prisoner?"

  "He's give himself away," triumphed the one edged Tom. "I guess thatclinches it. He's riding Maloney's hawss. He's wounded; so's the man wewant. He answers the description--gray eyes, tall, slim, muscular. Samegun--automatic Colt. Tell you there's nothin' to it, Duffield."

  "If you're not Kinney, how come you with this hawss? He stole it froma barn in Fort Lincoln last night. That's known," said the leader,Duffield.

  The imperilled man thought of the girl bing toward the border with herbrother and the remembrance padlocked his tongue.

  "Take me to the proper authorities and I'll answer questions. But, I'llnot talk here. What's the use? You don't believe a word I say."

  "You spoke the truth that time," said one.

  "If you ever want to do any explaining now's the hour," added another.

  "I'll do mine later, gentlemen."

  They looked at each other and one of them spoke.

  "It will be too late to explain then."

  "Too late?"

  Some inkling of the man's hideous meaning seared him and ran like anice-blast through him.

  "You've done all the meanness you'll ever do in this world. Poor DaveLong is the last man you'll ever kill. We're going to do justice rightnow."

  "Dave Long! I never heard of him," the prisoner repeated mechanically."Good God, do you think I'm a murderer?"

  One of the men thrust himself forward. "We know it. Y'u and that hellishpartner of yours shot him while he was locking the gate. But y'u made amistake when y'u come to Fort Lincoln. He lived there before he went tobe a guard at the Arizona penitentiary. I'm his brother. These gentlemenare his neighbors. Y'u're not going back to prison. Y'u're going to stayright here under this cottonwood."

  If the extraordinary menace of the man appalled Neill he gave no signof it. His gray eye passed from one to another of them quietly withoutgiving any sign of the impotent tempest raging within him.

  "You're going to lynch me then?"

  "Y'u've called the turn."

  "Without giving me a chance to prove my innocence?"

  "Without giving y'u a chance to escape or sneak back to thepenitentiary."

  The thing was horribly unthinkable. The warm mellow afternoon sunshinewrapped them about. The horses grazed with quiet unconcern. One ofthese hard-faced frontiersmen was chewing tobacco with machine-likeregularity. Another was rolling a cigarette. There was nothing ofdramatic effect. Not a man had raised his voice. But Neill knew therewas no appeal. He had come to the end of the passage through a horriblemistake. He raged in bitter resentment against his fate, against thesemen who stood so quietly about him ready to execute it, most of allagainst the girl who had let him sacrifice himself by concealing thevital fact that her brother had murdered a guard to effect his escape.Fool that he had been, he had stumbled into a trap, and she had lethim do it without a word of warning. Wild, chaotic thoughts crowded hisbrain furiously.

  But the voice with which he addressed them was singularly even andcolorless.

  "I am a stranger to this country. I was born in Tennessee, brought upin the Panhandle. I'm an irrigation engineer by profession. This is myvacation. I'm headed now for the Mal Pais mines. Friends of mine areinterested in a property there with me and I have been sent to lookthe ground over and make a report. I never heard of Kinney till to-day.You've got the wrong man, gentlemen."

  "We'll risk it," laughed one brutally. "Bring that riata, Tom."

  Neill did not struggle or cry out frantically. He stood motionless whilethey adjusted the rope round his bronzed throat. They had judged himfor a villain; they should at least know him a man. So he stood therestraight and lithe, wide-shouldered and lean-flanked, a man in athousand. Not a twitch of the well-packed muscles, not a quiver of theeyelash nor a swelling of the throat betrayed any fear. His cool eyeswere quiet and steady.

  "If you want to leave any message for anybody I'll see it's delivered,"promised Duffield.

  "I'll not trouble you with any."

  "Just as you like."

  "He didn't give poor Dave any time for messages," cried Tom Longbitterly.

  "That's right," assented another with a curse.

  It was plain to the victim they were spurring their nerves to hardihood.

  "Who's that?" cried one of the men, pointing to a rider galloping towardthem.

  The newcomer approached rapidly, covered by their weapons, and flunghimself from his pony as he dragged it to a halt beside the group.

  "Steve Fraser," cried Duffield in surprise, and added, "He's an officerin the rangers."

  "Right, gentlemen. Come to claim my prisoner," said the ranger promptly.

  "Y'u can't have him, Steve. We took him and he's got to hang."

  The lieutenant of rangers shook his dark curly head.

  "Won't do, Duffield. Won't do at all," he said decisively. "You'd oughtto know law's on top in Texas these days."

  Tom Long shouldered his way to the front. "Law! Where was the law whenthis ruffian Kinney shot down my poor brother Dave? I guess a
rope and acottonwood's good enough law for him. Anyhow, that's what he gits."

  Fraser, hard-packed, lithe, and graceful, laid a friendly hand on theother's shoulder and smiled sunnily at him.

  "I know how you feel, Tom. We all thought a heap of Dave and you're hisbrother. But Dave died for the law. Both you boys have always stood fororder. He'd be troubled if he knew you were turned enemy to it on hisaccount."

  "I'm for justice, Steve. This skunk deserves death and I'm going to seehe gits it."

  "No, Tom."

  "I say yes. Y'u ain't sitting in this game, Steve."

  "I reckon I'll have to take a hand then."

  The ranger's voice was soft and drawling, but his eyes were indomitablysteady. Throughout the Southwest his reputation for fearlessness wasestablished even among a population singularly courageous. The audacityof his daredevil recklessness was become a proverb.

  "We got a full table. Better ride away and forget it," said another.

  "That ain't what I'm paid for, Jack," returned Fraser good-naturedly."Better turn him over to me peaceable, boys. He'll get what's coming tohim all right."

  "He'll get it now, Steve, without any help of yours. We don't aim toallow any butting in."

  "Don't you?"

  There was a flash of steel as the ranger dived forward. Next instant heand the prisoner stood with their backs to the cottonwood, a revolverhaving somehow leaped from its scabbard to his hand. His hunting-knifehad sheared at a stroke the riata round the engineer's neck.

  "Take it easy, boys," urged Fraser, still in his gentle drawl, to theastonished vigilantes whom his sudden sally had robbed of their victim."Think about it twice. We'll all be a long time dead. No use in hurryingthe funerals."

  Nevertheless he recognized battle as inevitable. Friends of his thoughthey were, he knew these sturdy plainsmen would never submit to befoiled in their purpose by one man. In the momentary silence before theclash the quiet voice of the prisoner made itself heard.

  "Just a moment, gentlemen. I don't want you spilling lead over me. I'mthe wrong man, and I can prove it if you'll give me time. Here's thekey to my room at the hotel in San Antonio. In my suit-case you'll findletters that prove--"

  "We don't need them. I've got proof right here," cut in Fraser,remembering.

  He slipped a hand into his coat pocket and drew out two photographs."Boys, here are the pictures and descriptions of the two men thatescaped from Yuma the other day. I hadn't had time to see this gentlemanbefore he spoke, being some busy explaining the situation to you, but ablind jackass could see he don't favor either Kinney or Struve, You'resure barking up the wrong tree."

  The self-appointed committee for the execution of justice and the manfrom the Panhandle looked the prison photographs over blankly. Betweenthe hard, clean-cut face of their prisoner and those that looked at themfrom the photographs it was impossible to find any resemblance. Duffieldhanded the prints back with puzzled chagrin.

  "I guess you're right, Steve. But I'd like this gentleman to explainhow come he to be riding the horse one of these miscreants stole fromMaloney's barn last night."

  Steve looked at the prisoner. "It's your spiel, friend," he said.

  "All right. I'll tell you some facts. Just as I was coming down fromthe Roskruge range this mo'ning I was held up for my team. One of thesefellows--the one called Kinney--had started from Fort Lincoln on thisroan here, but he was wounded and broke down. There was some gun-play,and he gave me this scratch on the cheek. The end of it was that he tookmy team and left me with his worn-out bronc. I plugged on all day withthe hawss till about three mebbe, then seeing it was all in Iunsaddled and picketed. I lay down and dropped asleep. Next I knew thenecktie-party was in session."

  "What time was it y'u met this fellow Kinney?" asked Long sharply.

  "Must have been about nine or nine-thirty I judge."

  "And it's five now. That's eight hours' start, and four more before wecan cut his trail on Roskruge. By God, we've lost him!"

  "Looks like," agreed another ruefully.

  "Make straight for the Arivaca cut-off and you ought to stand a show,"suggested Fraser.

  "That's right. If we ride all night, might beat him to it." Each of thefive contributed a word of agreement.

  Five minutes later the Texan and the ranger watched a dust-clouddrifting to the south. In it was hidden the posse disappearing over thehilltop.

  Steve grinned. "I hate to disappoint the boys. They're so plumb anxious.But I reckon I'll strike the telephone line and send word to Moreno forone of the rangers to cut out after Kinney. Going my way, seh?"

  "If you're going mine."

  "I reckon I am. And just to pass the time you might tell me the realstory of that hold-up while we ride."

  "The real story?"

  "Well, I don't aim to doubt your word, but I reckon you forgot to tellsome of it." He turned on the other his gay smile. "For instance, seh,you ain't asking me to believe that you handed over your rig to Kinneyso peaceful and that he went away and clean forgot to unload from youthat gun you pack."

  The eyes of the two met and looked into each other's as clear andstraight as Texas sunshine. Slowly Neill's relaxed into a smile.

  "No, I won't ask you to believe that. I owe you something because yousaved my life--"

  "Forget it," commanded the lieutenant crisply.

  "And I can't do less than tell you the whole story."

  He told it, yet not the whole of it either; for there was one detailhe omitted completely. It had to do with the cause for existence of thelittle black-and-blue bruise under his right eye and the purple ridgethat seamed his wrist. Nor with all his acuteness could Stephen Fraserguess that the one swelling had been made by a gold ring on the clenchedfist of an angry girl held tight in Larry Neill's arms, the other by thelash of a horsewhip wielded by the same young woman.

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