A texas ranger, p.19
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       A Texas Ranger, p.19

           William MacLeod Raine
 
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  CHAPTER VI -- A SURE ENOUGH WOLF

  Briscoe did not return at once to the scene of the round-up. He followedthe trail toward Jackson's Pocket, but diverged after he had gone a fewmiles and turned into one of the hundred blind gulches that ran out fromthe valley to the impassable mountain wall behind. It was known as JackRabbit Run, because its labyrinthine trails offered a retreat into whichhunted men might always dive for safety. Nobody knew its recesses betterthan Jed Briscoe, who was acknowledged to be the leader of that factionin the valley which had brought it the bad name it held.

  Long before Jed's time there had been such a faction, then the dominantone of the place, now steadily losing ground as civilization seeped in,but still strong because bound by ties of kindred and of interest tothe honest law-abiding majority. Of it were the outlaws who cameperiodically to find shelter here, the hasty men who had struck in heatand found it necessary to get beyond the law's reach for a time, andreckless cowpunchers, who foregathered with these, because they werebirds of a feather. To all such, Jack Rabbit Run was a haven of rest.

  By devious paths the cattleman guided his horse until he came to a kindof pouch, guarded by a thick growth of aspens. The front of these heskirted, plunged into them at the farther edge, and followed a narrowtrail which wound among them till the grove opened upon a saucer-shapedvalley in which nestled a little log cabin. Lights gleamed from thewindows hospitably and suggested the comfortable warmth of a log fireand good-fellowship. So many a hunted man had thought as he emerged fromthat grove to look down upon the valley nestling at his feet.

  Jed turned his horse into a corral back of the house, let out the hootof an owl as he fed and watered, and returning to the cabin, gave thefour knocks that were the signal for admission.

  Bolts were promptly withdrawn and the door thrown open by a slender,fair-haired fellow, whose features looked as if they had been roughedout and not finished. He grinned amiably at the newcomer and greeted himwith: "Hello, Jed."

  "Hello, Tommie," returned Briscoe, carelessly, and let his glance passto the three men seated at the table with cards and poker chips infront of them, The man facing Briscoe was a big, heavy-set, unmistakableruffian with long, drooping, red mustache, and villainous, fishy eyes.It was observable that the trigger finger of his right hand was missing.Also, there was a nasty scar on his right cheek running from the bridgeof the nose halfway to the ear. This gave surplusage to the sinisterappearance he already had. To him Briscoe spoke first, attempting ageniality he did not feel.

  "How're they coming, Texas?"

  "You ain't heard me kicking any, have you?" the man made sullen answer.

  "Not out loud," said Briscoe significantly, his eyes narrowing after atrick they had when he was most on his guard.

  "I reckon my remarks will be plumb audible when I've got any kick toregister, seh."

  "I hope not, Mr. Johnson. In this neck of woods a man is liable to gethimself disliked if he shoots off his mouth too prevalent. Folks thatdon't like our ways can usually find a door open out of Lost Valley--ifthey don't wait too long!"

  "I'm some haidstrong. I reckon I'll stay." He scowled at Jed withdisfavor, meeting him eye to eye. But presently the rigor of his gazerelaxed. Me remembered that he was a fugitive from justice, and at themercy of this man who had so far guessed his secret. Putting a temporarycurb on his bilious jealousy, he sulkily added: "Leastways, if there'sno objection, Mr. Briscoe. I ain't looking for trouble with anybody."

  "A man who's looking for it usually finds it, Mr. Johnson. A man thatain't, lives longer and more peaceable." At this point Jed pulledhimself together and bottled his arrogance, remembering that he had cometo make an alliance with this man. "But that's no way for friends totalk. I got a piece of news for you. We'll talk it over in the otherroom and not disturb these gentlemen."

  One of the "gentlemen" grinned. He was a round-bodied, bullet-headedcowpuncher, with a face like burnt leather. He was in chaps, flannelshirt, and broad-brimmed hat. From a pocket in his chaps a revolverprotruded. "That's right, Jed. Wrap it up proper. You'd hate to disturbus, wouldn't you?"

  "I'll not interrupt you from losing your money more than five minutes,Yorky," answered Briscoe promptly.

  The third man at the table laughed suddenly. "Ay bane laik to know howyuh feel now, Yorky?" he taunted.

  "It ain't you that's taking my spondulix in, you big, overgrown Swede!"returned Yorky amiably. "It's the gent from Texas. How can a fellow buckagainst luck that fills from a pair to a full house on the draw?"

  The blond giant, Siegfried--who was not a Swede, but aNorwegian--announced that he was seventeen dollars in the game himself.

  Tommie, already broke, and an onlooker, reported sadly.

  "Sixty-one for me, durn it!"

  Jed picked up a lamp, led the way to the other room, and closed the doorbehind them.

  "I thought it might interest you to know that there's a new arrival inthe valley, Mr. Struve," he said smoothly.

  "Who says my name's Struve?" demanded the man who called himselfJohnson, with fierce suspicion.

  Briscoe laughed softly. "I say it--Wolf Struve. Up till last month youraddress for two years has been number nine thousand four hundred andthirty-two, care of Penitentiary Warden, Yuma, Arizona."

  "Prove it. Prove it," blustered the accused man.

  "Sure." From his inside coat pocket Jed took out a printed noticeoffering a reward for the capture of Nick Struve, alias "Wolf" Struve,convict, who had broken prison on the night of February seventh,and escaped, after murdering one of the guards. A description and aphotograph of the man wanted was appended.

  "Looks some like you. Don't it, Mr.--shall I say Johnson or Struve?"

  "Say Johnson!" roared the Texan. "That ain't me. I'm no jailbird."

  "Glad to know it." Briscoe laughed in suave triumph. "I thought youmight be. This description sounds some familiar. I'll not read it all.But listen: 'Scar on right cheek, running from bridge of nose towardear. Trigger finger missing; shot away when last arrested. Weight, aboutone hundred and ninety.' By the way, just out of curiosity, how heavyare you, Mr. Johnson? 'Height, five feet nine inches. Protuberant, fishyeyes. Long, drooping, reddish mustache.' I'd shave that mustache if Iwere you, Mr.--er--Johnson. Some one might mistake you for Nick Struve."

  The man who called himself Johnson recognized denial as futile. He flungup the sponge with a blasphemous oath. "What do you want? What's yourgame? Do you want to sell me for the reward? By thunder, you'd betternot!"

  Briscoe gave way to one of the swift bursts of passion to which he wassubject. "Don't threaten me, you prison scum! Don't come here and try todictate what I'm to do, and what I'm not to do. I'll sell you if I wantto. I'll send you back to be hanged like a dog. Say the word, and I'llhave you dragged out of here inside of forty-eight hours."

  Struve reached for his gun, but the other, wary as a panther, had himcovered while the convict's revolver was still in his pocket.

  "Reach for the roof! Quick--or I'll drill a hole in you! That's theidea. I reckon I'll collect your hardware while I'm at it. That's a heapbetter."

  Struve glared at him, speechless.

  "You're too slow on the draw for this part of the country, my friend,"jeered Briscoe. "Or perhaps, while you were at Yuma, you got out ofpractice. It's like stealing candy from a kid to beat you to it. Don'tever try to draw a gun again in Lost Valley while you're asleep. Youmight never waken."

  Jed was in high good humor with himself. His victim looked silent murderat him.

  "One more thing, while you're in a teachable frame of mind," continuedBriscoe. "I run Lost Valley. What I say, goes here. Get that soaked intoyour think-tank, my friend. Ever since you came, you've been disputingthat in your mind. You've been stirring up the boys against me. ThinkI haven't noticed it? Guess again, Mr. Struve. You'd like to be bossyourself, wouldn't you? Forget it. Down in Texas you may be a bad, badman, a sure enough wolf, but in Wyoming you only stack up to coyotesize. Let this slip your mind, and I'll be running Los
t Valley afteryour bones are picked white by the buzzards."

  "I ain't a-goin' to make you any trouble. Didn't I tell you thatbefore?" growled Struve reluctantly.

  "See you don't, then. Now I'll come again to my news. I was telling youthat there's another stranger in this valley, Mr. Struve. Hails fromTexas, too. Name of Fraser. Ever hear of him?"

  Briscoe was hardly prepared for the change which came over the Texan atmention of that name. The prominent eyes stared, and a deep, apoplecticflush ran over the scarred face. The hand that caught at the walltrembled with excitement.

  "You mean Steve Fraser--Fraser of the Rangers!" he gasped.

  "That's what I'm not sure of. I got to milling it over after I left him,and it come to me I'd seen him or his picture before. You still got thatmagazine with the article about him?"

  "Yes."

  "I looked it over hurriedly. Let me see his picture again, and I'll tellyou if it's the same man."

  "It's in the other room."

  "Get it."

  Struve presently returned with the magazine, and, opening it, pointed toa photograph of a young officer in uniform, with the caption underneath:

  LIEUTENANT STEPHEN FRASER OF THE TEXAS RANGERS

  Who, single-handed, ran down and brought to justice the worst gang of outlaws known in recent years.

  "It's the same man," Briscoe announced.

  The escaped convict's mouth set in a cruel line.

  "One of us, either him or me, never leaves this valley alive," heannounced.

  Jed laughed softly and handed back the revolver. "That's the way totalk. My friend, if you mean that, you'll need your gun. Here's hopingyou beat him to it."

  "It won't be an even break this time if I can help it."

  "I gather that it was, last time."

  "Yep. We drew together." Struve interlarded his explanation with oaths."He's a devil with a gun. See that?" He held up his right band.

  "I see you're shy your most useful finger, if that's what you mean."

  "Fraser took it off clean at twenty yards. I got him in the hand, too,but right or left he's a dead shot. He might 'a' killed me if he hadn'twanted to take me alive. Before I'm through with him he'll wish he had."

  "Well, you don't want to make any mistake next time. Get him right."

  "I sure will." Hitherto Struve had been absorbed in his own turbidemotions, but he came back from them now with a new-born suspicionin his eyes. "Where do you come in, Mr. Briscoe? Why are you so plumbanxious I should load him up with lead? If it's a showdown, I'd somelike to see your cards too."

  Jed shrugged. "My reasons ain't urgent like yours. I don't favor spiespoking their noses in here. That's all there's to it."

  Jed had worked out a plot as he rode through the night from the Dillonranch--one so safe and certain that it pointed to sure success. Jed wasno coward, but he had a spider-like cunning that wove others as dupesinto the web of his plans.

  The only weakness in his position lay in himself, in that sudden boilingup of passion in him that was likely to tear through his own web anddestroy it. Three months ago he had given way to one of these outbursts,and he knew that any one of four or five men could put a noose aroundhis neck. That was another reason why such a man as this Texas rangermust not be allowed to meet and mix with them.

  It was his cue to know as much as he could of every man that came intothe valley. Wherefore he had run down the record of Struve from thereward placard which a detective agency furnished him of hundreds ofcriminals who were wanted. What could be more simple than to stir up theconvict, in order to save himself, to destroy the ranger who had run himdown before? There would be a demand so insistent for the punishment ofthe murderer that it could not be ignored. He would find some pretextto lure Struve from the valley for a day or two, and would arrange itso that he would be arrested while he was away. Thus he would be ridof both these troublesome intruders without making a move that could beseen.

  It was all as simple as A B C. Already Struve had walked into the trap.As Jed sat down to take a hand in the poker game that was in progress,he chuckled quietly to himself. He was quite sure that he was alreadypractically master of the situation.

 
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