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   Chapter 41 HOMING HEARTS

Oh, You Tex! By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 9326

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Jack crept closer, very carefully. He was morally certain that the defenders held the ledge, but it would not do to make a mistake. Lives were at stake-one life much more precious than his own.

He drew his revolver and snaked forward. There was nothing else to do but take a chance. But he meant at least to minimize it, and certainly not to let himself be captured alive.

It was strange that nobody yet had challenged him. He was close enough now to peer into the darkness of the tunnel between the boulders and the wall. There seemed to be no one on guard.

He crept forward to the last boulder, and his boot pressed against something soft lying on the ground. It moved. A white, startled face was lifted to his-a face that held only the darkness of despair.

He knelt, put down his revolver, and slipped an arm around the warm young body.

"Thank God!" he cried softly. He was trembling in every limb. Tears filled his voice. And over and over again he murmured, "Thank God!... Thank God!"

The despair in the white face slowly dissolved. He read there doubt, a growing certainty, and then a swift, soft radiance of joy and tears.

"I prayed for you, and you've come. God sent you to me. Oh, Jack, at last!"

Her arms crept round his neck. He held her close and kissed the sweet lips salt with tears of happiness.

He was ashamed of himself. Not since he had been a little boy had he cried till now. His life had made for stoicism. But tears furrowed down his lean, brown cheeks. The streak in him that was still tender-hearted child had suddenly come to the surface. For he had expected to find her dead at best; instead, her warm, soft body was in his arms, her eyes were telling him an unbelievable story that her tongue as yet could find no words to utter. There flamed in him, like fire in dead tumbleweeds, a surge of glad triumph that inexplicably blended with humble thankfulness.

To her his emotion was joy without complex. The Ranger was tough as a hickory withe. She knew him hard as tempered steel to those whom he opposed, and her heart throbbed with excitement at his tears. She alone among all women could have touched him so. It came to her like a revelation that she need never have feared. He was her destined mate. Across that wide desert space empty of life he had come straight to her as to a magnet.

And from that moment, all through the night, she never once thought of being afraid. Her man was beside her. He would let no harm come to her. Womanlike, she exulted in him. He was so lithe and brown and slender, so strong and clean, and in all the world there was nothing that he feared.

With her hand in his she walked through the passage to where Dinsmore held watch. The outlaw turned and looked at the Ranger. If anybody had told him that a time would come when he would be glad to see Tex Roberts for any purpose except to fight him, the bandit would have had a swift, curt answer ready. But at sight of him his heart leaped. No hint of this showed in his leathery face.

"Earnin' that dollar a day, are you?" he jeered.

"A dollar a day an' grub," corrected Jack, smiling.

"Much of a posse with you?"

"Dropped in alone. My men are camped a few miles back. Mr. Wadley is with us."

"They got Gurley, I reckon. He tried to sneak away." Dinsmore flashed a quick look toward Ramona and back at Jack. "Leastways I'm not bettin' on his chances. Likely one of the 'Paches shot him."


The girl said nothing. She knew that neither of the men believed Gurley had been shot. Those horrible cries that had come out of the night had been wrung from him by past-masters in the business of torture.

"You'd better get back an' hold the other end of the passage," suggested Dinsmore. He jerked his head toward 'Mona. "She'll show you where."

Ramona sat beside her lover while he kept watch, her head against his shoulder, his arm around her waist. Beneath the stars that were beginning to prick through the sky they made their confessions of love to each other. She told him how she had tried to hate him because of her brother and could not, and he in turn told her how he had thought Arthur Ridley was her choice.

"I did think so once-before I knew you," she admitted, soft eyes veiled beneath long lashes. "Then that day you fought with the bull to save me: I began to love you then."

They talked most of the night away, but in the hours toward morning he made her lie down and rest. She protested that she couldn't sleep; she would far rather sit beside him. But almost as soon as her head touched the saddle she was asleep.

A little before dawn he went to waken her. For

a moment the soft loveliness of curved cheek and flowing lines touched him profoundly. The spell of her innocence moved him to reverence. She was still a child, and she was giving her life into his keeping.

The flush of sleep was still on her wrinkled cheek when she sat up at his touch.

"The Apaches are climbing up the boulder field," he explained. "I didn't want to waken you with a shot."

She stood before him in shy, sweet surrender, waiting for him to kiss her before he took his post. He did.

"It's goin' to be all right," he promised her. "We'll drive 'em back an' soon yore father will be here with the men."

"I'm not afraid," she said-"not the least littlest bit. But you're not to expose yourself."

"They can't hit a barn door-never can. But I'll take no chances," he promised.

During the night the Apaches had stolen far up the boulder bed and found cover behind quartz slabs which yielded them protection as good as that of the white man above. They took no chances, since there was plenty of time to get the imprisoned party without rushing the fort. Nobody knew they were here. Therefore nobody would come to their rescue. It was possible that they had food with them, but they could not have much water. In good time-it might be one sleep, perhaps two, possibly three-those on the ledge must surrender or die. So the Indians reasoned, and so the Ranger guessed that they would reason.

Jack lay behind his rocks as patiently as the savages did. Every ten or fifteen minutes he fired a shot, not so much with the expectation of hitting one of the enemy as to notify his friends where he was. Above the ca?on wall opposite the sun crept up and poured a golden light into the misty shadows of the gulch. Its shaft stole farther down the hillside till it touched the yellowing foliage of the cottonwoods.

Up the ca?on came the sudden pop-pop-pop of exploding rifles. Drifted up yells and whoops. The Indians hidden in the rock slide began to appear, dodging swiftly down toward the trees. Jack let out the "Hi-yi-yi" of the line-rider and stepped out from the boulders to get a better shot. The naked Apaches, leaping like jack-rabbits, scurried for cover. Their retreat was cut off from the right, and they raced up the gorge to escape the galloping cowboys who swung round the bend. One of the red men, struck just as he was sliding from a flat rock, whirled, plunged down headfirst like a diver, and disappeared in the brush.

Jack waited to see no more. He turned and walked back into the cave where his incomparable sweetheart was standing with her little fingers clasped tightly together.

"It's all over. The 'Paches are on the run," he told her.

She drew a deep, long breath and trembled into his arms.

There Clint Wadley found her five minutes later. The cattleman brushed the young fellow aside and surrounded his little girl with rough tenderness. Jack waited to see no more, but joined Dinsmore outside.

After a long time Wadley, his arm still around Ramona, joined them on the ledge.

"Boys, I'm no hand at talkin'," he said huskily. "I owe both of you a damned sight more than I can ever pay. I'll talk with you later, Jack. What about you, Dinsmore? You're in one hell of a fix. I'll get you out of it or go broke."

"What fix am I in?" demanded the outlaw boldly. "They ain't got a thing on me-not a thing. Suspicions aren't proof."

The Ranger said nothing. He knew that the evidence he could give would hang Dinsmore before any Panhandle jury, and now his heart was wholly on the side of the ruffian who had saved the life of his sweetheart. None the less, it was his duty to take the man in charge and he meant to do it.

"Hope you can make yore side of the case stick, Dinsmore. I sure hope so. Anyway, from now on I'm with you at every turn of the road," the cattleman promised.

"Much obliged," answered the outlaw with a lift of his lip that might have been either a smile or a sneer.

"You've been trailin' with a bad outfit. You're a sure-enough wolf, I've heard tell. But you're a man all the way, by gad."

"Did you figure I was yellow like Steve, Clint? Mebbe I'm a bad hombre all right. But you've known me twenty years. What license have you ever had to think I'd leave a kid like her for the 'Paches to play with?" The hard eyes of the outlaw challenged a refutation of his claim.

"None in the world, Homer. You're game. Nobody ever denied you guts. An' you're a better man than I thought you were."

Dinsmore splattered the face of a rock with tobacco juice and his stained teeth showed in a sardonic grin.

"I've got a white black heart," he jeered.

* * *

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