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   Chapter 18 A SHOT OUT OF THE NIGHT

Oh, You Tex! By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 8795

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Ramona sat on the porch in the gathering darkness. She had been reading aloud to her father, but he had fallen asleep beside her in his big armchair. During these convalescent days he usually took a nap after dinner and after supper. He called it forty winks, but to an unprejudiced listener the voice of his slumber sounded like a sawmill in action.

The gate clicked, and a man walked up the path. He did not know that the soft eyes of the girl, sitting in the porch shadows, lit with pleasure at sight of him. Nothing in her voice or in her greeting told him so.

He took off his hat and stood awkwardly with one booted foot on the lowest step.

"I came to see Mr. Wadley," he presently explained, unaccountably short of small talk.

She looked at her father and laughed. The saw was ripping through a series of knots in alternate crescendo and diminuendo. "Shall I wake him? He likes to sleep after eating. I think it does him good."

"Don't you! I'll come some other time."

"Couldn't you wait a little? He doesn't usually sleep long." The girl suggested it hospitably. His embarrassment relieved any she might otherwise have felt.

"I reckon not."

At the end of that simple sentence he stuck, and because of it Jack Roberts blushed. It was absurd. There was no sense in it, he told himself. It never troubled him to meet men. He hadn't felt any shyness when there had been a chance to function in action for her. But now he was all feet and hands before this slip of a girl. Was it because of that day when she had come flying between him and the guns of Dinsmore's lynching-party? He wanted to thank her, to tell her how deeply grateful he had been for the thought that had inspired her impulse. Instead of which he was, he did not forget to remind himself later, as expressive as a bump on a log.

"Have you seen anything of Mr. Ridley?" she asked.

"No, miss. He saved yore father's life from Pete Dinsmore. I reckon you know that."

"Yes. I saw him for a moment. Poor boy! I think he is worrying himself sick. If you meet him will you tell him that everything's all right. Dad would like to see him."

Their voices had dropped a note in order not to waken her father. For the same reason she had come down the steps and was moving with him toward the gate.

If Jack had known how to say good-bye they would probably have parted at the fence, but he was not socially adequate for the business of turning his back gracefully on a young woman and walking away. As he backed from her he blurted out what was in his mind.

"I gotta thank you for-for buttin' in the other day, Miss Ramona."

She laughed, quite at her ease now. Why is it that the most tender-hearted young women like to see big two-fisted men afraid of them?

"Oh, you thought I was buttin' in," she mocked, tilting a gay challenge of the eyes at him.

"I roped the wrong word, miss. I-I thought-"

What he thought was never a matter of record. She had followed him along the fence to complete his discomfiture and to enjoy her power to turn him from an efficient man into a bashful hobbledehoy.

"Father gave me an awful scolding. He said I didn't act like a lady."

"He's 'way off," differed Jack hotly.

She shook her head. "No. You see I couldn't explain to everybody there that I did it for-for Rutherford-because I didn't want anything so dreadful as that poor Mexican's death on his account. Dad said some of the men might think I did it-oh, just to be showing off," she finished untruthfully.

"Nobody would think that-nobody but a plumb idjit. I think you did fine."

Having explained satisfactorily that she had not interfered for his sake, there was really no occasion for Ramona to linger. But Jack had found his tongue at last and the minutes slipped away.

A sound in the brush on the far side of the road brought the Ranger to attention. It was the breaking of a twig. The foot that crushed it might belong to a cow or a horse. But Roberts took no chances. If some one was lying in wait, it was probably to get him.

"Turn round an' walk to the house," he ordered the girl crisply. "Sing 'Swanee River' as you go. Quick!"

There was a note in his voice that called for obedience. Ramona turned, a flurry of fear in her heart. She did not know what there was to be afraid of, but she was quite sure her companion had his reason. The words of the old plantation

song trembled from her lips into the night.

A dozen yards behind her Jack followed, backing toward the house. His six-shooter was in his hand, close to his side.

He flashed one look backward. The parlor was lit up and Clint Wadley was lying on a lounge reading a paper. He was a tempting mark for anybody with a grudge against him.

Jack took the last twenty yards on the run. He plunged into the parlor on the heels of Ramona.

Simultaneously came the sound of a shot and of breaking glass. Wadley jumped up, in time to see the Ranger blow out the lamp. Jack caught Ramona by the shoulders and thrust her down to her knees in a corner of the room.

"What in blue blazes-?" Clint began to demand angrily.

"Keep still," interrupted Jack. "Some one's bushwhackin' either you or me."

He crept to the window and drew down the blind. A small hole showed where the bullet had gone through the window and left behind it a star of shattered glass.

Ramona began to whimper. Her father's arm found and encircled her. "It's all right, honey. He can't git us now."

"I'm goin' out by the back door. Mebbe I can put salt on this bird's tail," said Jack. "You stay right where you are, Mr. Wadley. They can't hit either of you in that corner."

"Oh, don't! Please don't go!" wailed the girl.

Her words were a fillip to the Ranger. They sent a glow through his blood. He knew that at that moment she was not thinking of the danger to herself.

"Don't you worry. I'll swing round on him wide. Ten to one he's already hittin' the dust fast to make his get-away."

He slipped out of the room and out of the house. So slowly did he move that it was more than an hour before he returned to them.

"I guessed right," he told the cattleman. "The fellow hit it up at a gallop through the brush. He's ten miles from here now."

"Was he after me or you?"

"Probably me. The Rangers ain't popular with some citizens. Looks to me like Steve Gurley's work."

"I wouldn't be a Ranger if I was you. I'd resign," said Ramona impulsively.

"Would you?" Jack glanced humorously at Wadley. "I don't expect yore father would indorse them sentiments, Miss Ramona. He'd tell me to go through."

Clint nodded. "'Mona said you wanted to see me about somethin'."

The young man showed a little embarrassment. The cattleman guessed the reason. He turned to his daughter.

"Private business, honey."

Ramona kissed her father good-night and shook hands with Jack. When they were alone the Ranger mentioned the reason for his call.

"It's goin' around that Pete Dinsmore claims to have somethin' on Rutherford. The story is that he says you'd better lay off him or he'll tell what he knows."

The eyes of the cattleman winced. Otherwise he gave no sign of distress.

"I've got to stand the gaff, Jack. He can't blackmail me, even if the hound cooks up some infernal story about Ford. I hate it most on 'Mona's account. It'll hurt the little girl like sixty."

Jack was of that opinion too, but he knew that Wadley's decision not to throw his influence to shield the Dinsmores was the right one.

"She thought a heap o' Ford, 'Mona did," the cattleman went on. "He was all she had except me. The boy was wild. Most young colts are. My fault. I made things too easy for him-gave him too much money to spend. But outside of bein' wild he was all right. I'd hate to have her hear anything against him." He sighed. "Well, I reckon what must be must."

"Stories the Dinsmores tell won't count with honest folks. Pete is one bad hombre. Everybody will know why he talks-if he does. That's a big if too. He knows we've got evidence to tie his gang up with the killin' of Ford. He doesn't know how much. Consequence is he'll not want to raise any question about the boy. We might come back at him too strong."

"Mebbeso." Wadley looked at the Ranger and his gaze appraised Roberts a man among men. He wished that he had been given a son like this. "Boy, you kept yore wits fine to-night. That idea of makin' 'Mona walk alone to the house an' keepin' her singin' so's a bushwhacker couldn't make any mistake an' think she was a man was a jim-dandy."

The Ranger rose. He had not the same difficulty in parting from Wadley or any other man that he found in making his adieux to a woman. He simply reached for his hat, nodded almost imperceptibly, and walked out of the house.

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