Prologue, Part Two: The Ranger and The Man

One month later, mid-October…
          The Ranger hid in the trees and bushes on the hill overlooking the house. It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning and all the lights in the house were out. But the Ranger was extremely cautious; this chase had been going on for almost two years now, looked like it was nearing a conclusion, so mistakes at the moment simply could not be tolerated. Another day or so of reconnoitering wouldn’t hurt. Just to be sure.
          The house was almost an exact replica of a Southern plantation mansion, which was a bit ironic since The Man who owned it came from Philadelphia. He had been guilty of numerous crimes back east, from extortion to bribery to embezzlement and probably murder, too, but that one might be hard to prove. The Ranger had been in contact with law authorities back in Philadelphia, and had been working on the case ever since The Man moved west. A conviction on any of the charges would be welcomed and put The Man in prison for life.
          Back to the house for a moment. It was two-storied, white framed, but solidly built with columns in front, a porch extending all the way across the front, and a balcony overlooking the manicured yard. It was set in a cul-de-sac of a valley; the hills on three sides rising to towering mountains in the distance. The valley that spread out before the mansion was huge and The Man was attempting to own as much of it as possible--another mark against him in the Ranger’s eyes. There was no doubt he was rustling cattle, forcing small ranchers to default on their loans, and then The Man and the local banker would buy up the notes at disgustingly cheap prices. Sometimes The Man would buy the land to expand his empire, sometimes the banker would resell the land, send his (and The Man’s rustlers) back to work, forcing a small rancher to default…and the process would go on and on. He and the banker were barely started with it, but it had been working like a gem so far. Slowly but surely, the banker and The Man were gobbling up all the land in the valley. Nobody had quite caught on yet.
          Except the Ranger, who knew that The Man had been pulling these sorts of shenanigans for a long time. Not exactly the same thing; rustling wasn’t exactly common back east. But that’s part of what made The Man so hard to catch. He followed no pattern—except breaking the law. Nobody had been able to prove it, though.
          The proof is in that house…The Ranger had gotten a detailed blueprint of the mansion, knew right where the safe was in The Man’s study, and had even been able to obtain the combination of that safe. The Ranger smiled at that thought; working a little outside the law to obtain some of that information was worth it to get what was needed to fry The Man. But…patience. It had been a long journey; the Ranger wanted no mistakes now.
          The house itself faced south, and the Ranger was on the eastern hill, probably a quarter mile from the building itself. There were outbuildings behind the house—a barn, stables, corral, and, most importantly to the Ranger, a bunkhouse where ten men lived. Rustlers. I know that, too, though again, the proof was lacking. Yet these rustlers weren’t crude, doltish cowboys; they were cowboys, all right, but all of them well-mannered, clean, well-groomed, friendly—hypocritical, the Ranger thought. They are murdering thieves, every one of them. Yet, the local townsmen thought the whole enterprise run by The Man was totally above board, and he had the “cowboys” to match the image. They never created any ruckus in town; The Man wouldn’t have tolerated it. His hired hands were well paid so they followed his orders closely. None of them would ever have a job like this one again where they would be compensated so well for doing what they enjoyed.
          Positive image or not, they were ruthless. I DON’T want to fall into their hands…
          So, for the past three weeks, the Ranger had—carefully, very carefully—observed the house every night. From every angle. Watching at what time The Man came home, who came, who left, what time the hired help went to the bunkhouse, who was in the house—The Man wasn’t married, but he had a housekeeper who had her own little cottage outside. From what the Ranger could tell, only The Man was in the house at night after dark. Somebody—almost surely the housekeeper--put out all the lights, shut the blinds, and locked the doors. As soon as that was done, the housekeeper left for the evening and went to her cottage. The Man’s bedroom was in the northeast corner of the house, the study right below it. The Ranger was going to try to enter the study through the window. There was no way of telling whether that window was locked or not, but the Ranger had ways….
          There was a dog prowling the grounds, but I can handle that. The canine barked a lot—animals, for sure—so if he barked at the Ranger, it shouldn’t be too suspicious.
          The Ranger was getting a little antsy. Tomorrow night, there would be little moon. The Ranger nodded. That would be the night…

         The Ranger was back the next night, but not exactly at the same location; it didn’t pay to be in the same spot every night—just in case. But everything seemed normal. The cowhands did some chores and went in for supper about six. A few of them left and headed…somewhere. It wasn’t unusual for some of the cowboys to leave at night. The Ranger pulled a face. Maybe rustling. I hope they don’t stay out too late… Otherwise, things were normal. It was already dark by 8 P.M., and soon after that, all the lights in the house, except the ones in the study and The Man’s bedroom—were doused, and the housekeeper left. The cowboys who hadn’t left were in the bunkhouse. The dog was roaming the grounds, though it was very hard to see. It was a starry night and that helped some, but still quite dark. Suits me just fine....
          About 9 o’clock, the light in the study went out. Perhaps an hour later, the bedroom darkened; the man had gone to bed, and at the usual time. About 11 o’clock or so—the Ranger wasn’t sure, but was a good judge of time via the stars—the cowboys who had left earlier came riding in. They were laughing—sound carries very well at night—and they appeared to be a little drunk. They put their horses away and soon the Ranger heard the bunkhouse door close. A few minutes later, the light went out and it appeared everybody was bedded down for the night.
          The Ranger had been involved in some difficult, tense situations before so this was nothing new. Still, there is always some nervous anxiety before the final action is taken. Have I left anything out? I can’t see any holes in my plan…Of course, there was always the possibility of some unforeseen factor arising, but then, there wasn’t much that could be done about that. Some flexibility was always necessary because rarely did a plan work exactly as drawn up. Hopefully, this one would.
          The Ranger was going to be patient, however. Being this close…3 o’clock, when humans are usually in their deepest sleep or least alert, was the time the Ranger had set for moving. Again, without a watch, the Ranger was dependent upon the stars. But those had been well-studied, too. I’ll know when it’s time.
          The designated hour arrived. Slowly, as silent as a church mouse, the Ranger crept down the hill towards the house. There was a clearing of about 50 yards from the foliage on the hill to the house; the Ranger paused at the edge of that clearing, listening. Cicadas chirped, of course, but that was part of the night sounds. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Then…a growling close by…the dog. The Ranger carried a small pouch to put any confiscated papers from the safe into. There was, at the moment, some meat in the pouch. The Ranger pulled it out and tossed it in the direction of the growling mutt. In a moment, it was obvious the meat was gone. The dog came over, slowly wagging its tail, obviously wanting more goodies. The Ranger obliged. There…that takes care of that problem. Getting into a crouch, the Ranger dashed to the window of the study. Crouching below the window. Looking around…listening…no sounds out of the ordinary. The dog nuzzling…the Ranger scratched its ears. Then stood up, examined the window. Tried to open it. Locked.  Not surprising…The Ranger carried some tools in the pouch. It was a matter of two minutes work, and the Ranger slowly slid the window open and crawled inside.
          It was very dark in the study, darker than outside. The Ranger waited a minute or so to try to become as adjusted as possible to the interior of the room. Slowly, the outline of some shapes became manifest—a couch, chair, desk against the far wall. The safe lay behind that desk, in the wall. The Ranger nodded. Move with all deliberate speed….
          The Ranger got down on hands and knees, feeling carefully for any obstruction that might make the slightest sound. When working the combination of the safe and viewing the papers inside, the Ranger would need light. But not until then.
          The distance was navigated and the Ranger crawled around the desk. Reached out…touched the chair. The Ranger stood up, and carefully felt the wall…a painting. Tugging slightly on the right side of the picture frame, the Ranger was rewarded with a slight click. Swinging the picture to the left…there…even in the darkness, the safe appeared lighter in color than the surrounding wall. The Ranger’s heart sped up.
          There was one more thing in the pouch—well, two. A candle and matches. This would be touchy because the match would make a slight noise when struck and the light from the candle might possibly be seen outside. The Ranger was going to try to prevent that as much as possible, but there was also a window on the north side of the room—the Ranger’s right—so it would be virtually impossible to totally hide the light. But the effort would be made.
          The Ranger grimaced when the match flared; the sound was like a bomb. Yet it surely couldn’t have been heard outside the room. The light from the match would have been seen by anyone outside, but again, that was one of the “unforeseens” that couldn’t be helped. I’ve got to have SOME light to see the combination of the safe.
          The candle being lit and the doused match dropped back into the pouch, the Ranger worked as quickly as possible to open the safe while keeping the light as inconspicuous as possible. The combination had five stops; the Ranger had long ago memorized them. It took less than 30 seconds to dial the numbers; the Ranger turned the lever on the door, as was thrilled to hear another click. The safe door opened easily.
          Pulling out all the papers, the Ranger put them on the floor, trying to hide the light while searching. There were at least 100 different papers, forms, bank books, various correspondences; with as much haste as achievable, the Ranger searched. Several of the papers were exactly what was needed. Those were set aside. When the Ranger finished examining everything, the papers/documents that were not needed were arranged as they had been found. The ones the Ranger wanted were stuffed into the pouch. There were about 35 papers; more than enough to put The Man away for eternity…
          Now, let’s make sure everything is exactly the way I found it…papers like this…the combination was set on the number 17…perfect… Snuffing out the light, the Ranger got on all fours again, and quickly, but cautiously, negotiated the distance back to the window. The window would have to be left unlocked; there was no way that could be helped. Hopefully, the housekeeper will be blamed for an oversight. It was the best that could be expected.
          The Ranger slipped out the window and silently closed it. Then everything fell apart. Four lanterns in a half moon were lit about 10 feet away, between the escapee and the hills beyond. The Ranger cursed inwardly and was almost blinded by the light.
          “Well, what have we here?” a voice from behind one of the lanterns said. “Somebody has been in my study.”
          The Ranger said nothing, despondent at being caught, looking for a way of escape.
         “Don’t try drawing your gun, lawman, I have three rifles trained on you.” The Ranger heard three rounds of ammunition being shucked into firing chambers. “Please, very slowly, lift your pistol from your holster. Thumb and forefinger only.”
          The Ranger was very quick and accurate with the gun, but wisdom prevailed here; outshooting three rifles aimed at you was impossible for even the fastest of gunmen. So the Ranger did as ordered.
          Another voice spoke from behind a lantern. “Boss, do you notice something strange about that Ranger?”
          “Hmm,” the “boss”—obviously The Man—replied. “What do you mean, Curt?”
          Curt then laughed. “Look at this.” He walked over and removed the Ranger’s hat.
          “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle…” The Man said, and the other two with him chuckled. “A woman…”
          Yes, indeed, Allie Summer was all woman…