Authors: Fran Striker,Francis Hamilton Striker
The Lone Ranger and Tonto did not want to complete the last leg of their journey until after dark. That was why they spent the afternoon and the early evening in a small, well-concealed camp located among sheltering trees in a valley. With darkness, both were in the saddle, making their way at a slow gait across rolling country toward Snake River, just beyond the distant hills.
They rode slowly, saving their strength and the strength of the two big stallions, the snow-white one called Silver and the slightly smaller paint horse that Tonto had named Scout. Yet, despite the easy manner of both the Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, they were alert and watchful. They had to be. There were many people who would have liked nothing more than to put bullets through the hearts of these two men. People who had sworn to kill the Lone Ranger, because he had served justice by sending their friends to jail or to the hangman's noose.
He was an astonishing man, this Lone Ranger. He had become an almost legendary character throughout the length and breadth of seven states in the early West. Some folks regarded him as a myth, but countless others who had seen him in thrilling action told astounding stories of his skill with rope or gun, his hard riding, and uncanny judgment.
"Look ahead," the Lone Ranger told Tonto, speaking from behind a mask. "The moon is rising and we can see the top of the hill now."
"That right," agreed the Indian. "There plenty cottonwood on top of hill. Maybe we hide horse there. Go to Snake River on foot."
"We'll see," promised the Lone Ranger. He had not yet told Tonto his purpose in heading toward the town of Snake River, which bordered on the stream of water for which it was named. He had not told Tonto that he intended to leave him behind when he made his entry into the town itself. There was enough time for that later.
The Lone Ranger had his own peculiar way of serving justice. There were frequent times when sheriffs and other officers of the law disagreed with his methods, but the results of those methods generally found the lawless in jail, and the people they oppressed happier for the Lone Ranger's appearance. For several minutes, the two rode toward the distant cottonwoods in silence.
Tonto glanced across the small space that separated the two horsemen, and pride showed in his dark eyes as he studied the fine profile of the masked man. Tonto felt that he himself had done much to bring this heroic figure to the West. And it was true. It was Tonto who had rescued the one remaining member of the small band of Texas Rangers who had engaged in a fierce battle with an outlaw army. Of the entire band, only one lived, and even this man was more nearly dead than alive.
Tonto remembered vividly how he had carried the still form to his cave, and there applied all the instinctive knowledge of his people in a tireless fight to fan the feeble spark of life to a new flame. For days the Texas Ranger tossed in fever on a crude pallet of straw in the cave. Then, slowly, he regained his health, to learn from Tonto the fate of his friends. He swore then that he would not rest until the last of that marauding band had been made to pay for the massacre. Tonto remembered the steely expression of grim determination that had shown in the Texas Ranger's face when he said, "The last one living—the
." He remembered how the white man had unpinned his Texas Ranger's badge, and put it into his pocket; and how he had masked himself, so that none of the outlaws would know that he still lived. Then he had ridden out, masked, sometimes looked upon as an outlaw, while he brought one after another of the killers into the hands of the law.
"We can't stop now," the Lone Ranger had told Tonto when the last of the murderers was finally jailed. "There is too great a need for someone who can at times take the law into his own hands. The people of the West need help, and we're going to try to give it to them."
And that was just the beginning. The Lone Ranger and Tonto became inseparable. Each was the counterpart of the other. Where the Lone Ranger excelled in shooting and roping, Tonto was the superior in following a trail, in healing the sick and in treating the wounded. When decisive action was required to secure information upon which to plan their actions, the Lone Ranger acted; when quiet stolid waiting in the hope of overhearing certain facts would accomplish the best results, then Tonto took charge.
Tonto wondered just what mission had started the Lone Ranger on this trip to Snake River. The Indian was still pondering over this, when the two horses reached the cottonwoods at the crest of the hill.
Moonlight bathed the valley ahead. Snake River itself looked like a silver ribbon as it meandered through the valley. The town was on the near side of the water, and lights shone from many of the buildings. One building, set nearer to the hill than all the others, was pointed out by the masked man. "The jail," he said as he swung easily from the saddle.
Tall, sinewy, and giving the appearance of leanness despite his broad shoulders, the Lone Ranger studied the jail deliberately at this distance.
"Why," asked Tonto, noticing the other's actions, "you watch jail?"
"Because that's where I'm going, Tonto."
"You?" replied Tonto in surprise. "You not go there with mask. You not got disguise on face under mask."
"I'm not going to be taken into the jail, so I'll not be unmasked."
There had been times when the Lone Ranger found it necessary to remove his mask, and on these occasions he disguised himself with stains and dyes made by the Indian from herbs, roots and berry juices. "My trip there is going to be brief," finished the masked man.
"You think it safe?" queried Tonto, hoping the Lone Ranger would give him an explanation of the plans he had in mind.
"As safe as it has ever been. We've played this same game before. You wait right here, Tonto, and take care of the horses. I'm going the rest of the way on foot."
Tonto shook his head slowly. "Tonto go with you."
"Not this time, Tonto. If we go together and get into trouble, there will be no one we can look to for help. If I don't come back within a half hour, or if you hear shooting, then you may come."
Tonto could not argue the point. He dismounted and tossed the bridle over the head of Scout, then fastened the leather about the trunk of a convenient tree. Silently, he took the reins of Silver and did the same, while the Lone Ranger made ready for the trip.
His spurs had already been removed to preclude the chance of a betraying jingle that might announce his approach. He made certain his two holsters were well tied to his thighs, and that his brace of heavy six-guns was fully loaded and in smooth working order. Those guns held bullets that had become a symbol of the Lone Ranger—bullets of solid silver! The gleaming weapons had barked many times in self-defense and in the defense of others, but they had yet to take a life. When the Lone Ranger shot, he shot to disarm or to wound, but he never shot to kill.
The tall man jammed his guns in leather, gave a tug to his hat, and made certain his bandanna was well knotted. Then suddenly he became tense. Tonto's warning touch on his arm was a signal. A quick glance showed the Indian pointing toward the distant river.
"What's that?" Tonto asked.
At least a score of horsemen, and perhaps more, were fording the shallow stream, coming from the direction of the town, and heading toward the jail.
The Lone Ranger saw the riders and his lips thinned to a grim line. "That's what I was afraid might happen," he muttered. "I hope I'm not too late." He gripped the Indian's arm with a firm hand. "Wait," he said, "wait half an hour, and if I'm not back, do whatever you think best."
With these words, the Lone Ranger ran downhill, crouching low and moving rapidly, with the easy effortless grace of a perfectly conditioned athlete.
As he ran, the masked man kept an apprehensive watch on the body of men that had already crossed the stream. He noted that they were advancing slowly. He had seen lynch mobs in action several times—men half-crazed, roused to violence by some leader's tirade of hate. But this group of men was strangely different.
There was no trace of hysteria; no wild shouting or livid cursing, such as characterized a lynch mob bent on a half-drunk orgy of blood. On the contrary, this group of men had discussed what they were about to do. There had been calm, careful deliberation, with a full realization of the responsibility that was being assumed. It was evident in the way the horsemen rode. These riders, the Lone Ranger knew, could not be turned from their purpose by talk. The only hope for the safety of the prisoner inside the adobe jail was in getting him out of there to some safer place before the townsmen arrived.
The horsemen were still a considerable way upstream when the masked man reached the jail. He paused a moment in the shadow of the small, solidly built place, leaning against the sunbaked wall to regain his breath after the hard run.
After a moment, he inched his way silently along the building, hugging it closely, until he came to a small barred window from which the light of an oil lamp streamed. He crouched beneath the window, tense and alert. Now he heard the hoofs of the approaching riders. He knew there was little time. Seconds counted, yet he must make each move cautiously or all his efforts would be in vain. First, he lifted his hat above the lower casing of the window. When no shouts came from inside the jail, he replaced the hat, and peered into the room.
Two deputies were in the room to guard the prisoner. "Two men to guard a boy," murmured the Lone Ranger. "They're not taking any chances on his escape."
The men inside seemed oblivious to the sound of the oncoming townsmen. They either had not yet heard the clatter of hoofbeats, or they had been advised that the lynching would transpire and intended to stand aside and let the man in the jail cell beyond the office be taken without difficulty.
In the brief instant the Lone Ranger stood there at the window, he studied the place, missing no detail. He saw the battered square table in the middle of the room, the big desk against one wall. He noticed the hanging oil lamp over the table, and noted further that this was the only source of light. There was a barred door in the wall opposite the window, and beyond those bars, a man, or rather a boy, could be seen sitting on the edge of a crude bunk, his head in the palms of his hands, a picture of abject misery and hopelessness. The boy appeared to be about nineteen.
The Lone Ranger's hands dropped to his sides and came up with a pair of heavy guns. He rested these on the sill, then spoke sharply. "You in there, stand up and raise your hands!"
The guards froze at the words. Then they turned to see the masked face at the window and, what was more important, the menace of the guns.
"I said stand up—" repeated the Lone Ranger, emphasizing the command with a gesture of a gun. The guards moved to obey, gaining their feet slowly, while their hands were held at shoulder height. Then one of them, the taller one, suddenly dropped his hand to snatch a gun. The man was fast; his hand dropped down and came up again with the flashing speed of a striking copperhead!
Orange flame lashed from the Lone Ranger's right hand weapon. The guard's gun seemed to become a thing alive. It leaped from his hand and flew halfway across the room, totally destroyed by the impact of a solid silver bullet.
The guard roared in pain as he gripped the fingers of his gun hand in his other fist. "My hand," he bellowed, "it's smashed!"
"My bullet," retorted the Lone Ranger, "didn't touch your hand. I just shot your gun away, but if either of you make another move, you won't get off so easily. Now do what you're told and you'll come out of this alive!"
He paused to make certain that neither of them had any intention of trying further gunplay. The approaching horsemen were closer now. They must have heard the shot. The masked man could hear their shouts, and he noticed the increased pace of the hoofbeats.
"Now move fast!" he addressed the guard. "Back up to the door of the cell!" The two stepped backward, keeping a frightened watch on the grim masked man who fired with such deadly accuracy.
"What d'you want of us?" asked one of the men.
"Back up against the door, as close as you can get to it, and see that you keep your hands where they are." There was no compromise in the masked man's voice. The guards obeyed.
The thin, pale-faced boy in the cell looked over the guards' shoulders at the masked man with wide, frightened eyes. His blond hair was disheveled and had not been cut for some time. His face had the pinched look of one who has endured days and weeks of hunger and privation.
"Reach into the pocket of the guard who has the keys," the Lone Ranger told the captive, "and let yourself out of there!"