A texas ranger, p.21
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       A Texas Ranger, p.21

           William MacLeod Raine
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  Jed Briscoe rejoined the round-up the day following Fraser's initiation.He took silent note of the Texan's popularity, of how the boys allcalled him "Steve" because he had become one of them, and were readyeither to lark with him or work with him. He noticed, too, that theranger did his share of work without a whimper, apparently enjoying thelong, hard hours in the saddle. The hill riding was of the roughest, andthe cattle were wild as deers and as agile. But there was no break-neckincline too steep for Steve Fraser to follow.

  Once Jed chanced upon Steve stripped for a bath beside the creek, and heunderstood the physical reason for his perfect poise. The wiry, sinuousmuscles, packed compactly without obtrusion, played beneath the skinlike those of a panther. He walked as softly and as easily as one, withsomething of the rippling, unconscious grace of that jungle lord. It wasthis certainty of himself that vivified the steel-gray eyes which lookedforth unafraid, and yet amiably, upon a world primitive enough to demandproof of every man who would hold the respect of his fellows.

  Meanwhile, Briscoe waited for Struve and his enemy to become entangledin the net he was spinning. He made no pretense of fellowship withFraser; nor, on the other hand, did he actively set himself againsthim with the men. He was ready enough to sneer when Dick France grewenthusiastic about his new friend, but this was to be expected from oneof his jaundiced temper.

  "Who is this all-round crackerjack you're touting, Dick?" he askedsignificantly.

  France was puzzled. "Who is he? Why, he's Steve Fraser."

  "I ain't asking you what his name is. I'm asking who he is. What doeshe do for a living? Who recommended him so strong to the boys that theytake up with him so sudden?"

  "I don't care what he does for a living. Likely, he rides the range inTexas. When it comes to recommendations, he's got one mighty good onewritten on his face."

  "You think so, do you?"

  "That's what I think, Jed. He's the goods--best of company, astraight-up rider, and a first-rate puncher. Ask any of the boys."

  "I'm using my eyes, Dick. They tell me all I need to know."

  "Well, use them to-morrow. He's going to take a whirl at riding DeadEasy. Next day he's going to take on Rocking Horse. If he makes good onthem, you'll admit he can ride."

  "I ain't saying he can't ride. So can you. If it's plumb gentle, I canmake out to stick on a pony myself."

  "Course you can ride. Everybody knows that. You're the best ever. Anyman that can win the championship of Wyoming----But you'll say yourselfthem strawberry roans are wicked devils."

  "He hasn't ridden them yet, Dick."

  "He's going to."

  "We'll be there to see it. Mebbe he will. Mebbe he won't. I've known menbefore who thought they were going to."

  It was in no moment of good-natured weakness that Fraser had consentedto try riding the outlaw horses. Nor had his vanity anything to do withit. He knew a time might be coming when he would need all the prestigeand all the friendship he could earn to tide him over the crisis. JedBriscoe had won his leadership, partly because he could shoot quickerand straighter, ride harder, throw a rope more accurately, and playpoker better than his companions.

  Steve had a mind to show that he, too, could do some of these thingspassing well. Wherefore, he had let himself be badgered good-naturedlyinto trying a fall with these famous buckers. As the heavy work of theround-up was almost over, Dillon was glad to relax discipline enough togive the boys a little fun.

  The remuda was driven up while the outfit was at breakfast. His friendsguyed Steve with pleasant prophecy.

  "He'll be hunting leather about the fourth buck!"

  "If he ain't trying to make of himse'f one of them there Darius Greenmachines!" suggested another.

  "Got any last words, Steve? Dead Easy most generally eats 'em alive,"Dick derided.

  "Sho! Cayn't you see he's so plumb scared he cayn't talk?"

  Fraser grinned and continued to eat. When he had finished he gothis lariat from the saddle, swung to Siegfried's pony, and rodeunobtrusively forward to the remuda. The horses were circling round andround, so that it was several minutes before he found a chance. When hedid, the rope snaked forward and dropped over the head of the strawberryroan. The horse stood trembling, making not the least resistance, evenwhile the ranger saddled and cinched.

  But before the man settled to the saddle, the outlaw was off on itsfurious resistance. It went forward and up into the air with a plungingleap. The rider swung his hat and gave a joyous whoop. Next instantthere was a scatter of laughing men as the horse came toward them in aseries of short, stiff-legged bucks which would have jarred its riderlike a pile driver falling on his head had he not let himself grow limpto meet the shock.

  All the tricks of its kind this unbroken five-year-old knew. Weaving,pitching, sunfishing, it fought superbly, the while Steve rode with theconsummate ease of a master. His sinuous form swayed instinctively toevery changing motion of his mount. Even when it flung itself back inblind fury, he dropped lightly from the saddle and into it again as theanimal struggled to its feet.

  The cook waved a frying pan in frantic glee. "Hurra-ay! You're thegoods, all right, all right."

  "You bet. Watch Steve fan him. And he ain't pulled leather yet. Notonce."

  An unseen spectator was taking it in from the brow of a little hillcrowned with a group of firs. She had reached this point just as theTexan had swung to the saddle, and she watched the battle between horseand man intently. If any had been there to see, he might have observeda strange fire smouldering in her eyes. For the first time there wasfiltering through her a vague suspicion of this man who claimed to haveheart trouble, and had deliberately subjected himself to the terrificstrain of such a test. She had seen broncho busters get off bleedingat mouth and nose and ears after a hard fight, and she had never seen acontest more superbly fought than this one. But full of courage as thehorse was, it had met its master and began to know it.

  The ranger's quirt was going up and down, stinging Dead Easy to moreviolent exertions, if possible. But the outlaw had shot its bolt. Theplunges grew less vicious, the bucks more feeble. It still pitched,because of the unbroken gameness that defied defeat, but so mechanicallythat the motions could be forecasted.

  Then Steve began to soothe the brute. Somehow the wild creatute becameaware that this man who was his master was also disposed to be friendly.Presently it gave up the battle, quivering in every limb. Fraser slippedfrom the saddle, and putting his arm across its neck began to gentle theoutlaw. The animal had always looked the incarnation of wickedness. Thered eyes in its ill-shaped head were enough to give one bad dreams.A quarter of an hour before, it had bit savagely at him. Now it stoodbreathing deep, and trembling while its master let his hand pass gentlyover the nose and neck with soft words that slowly won the pony backfrom the terror into which it had worked itself.

  "You did well, Mr. Fraser from Texas," Jed complimented him, with asmile that thinly hid his malice. "But it won't do to have you goingback to Texas with the word that Wyoming is shy of riders. I ain't anygreat shakes, but I reckon I'll have to take a whirl at Rocking Horse."He had decided to ride for two reasons. One was that he had glimpsed thegirl among the firs; the other was to dissipate the admiration his rivalhad created among the men.

  Briscoe lounged toward the remuda, rope in hand. It was his cue toget himself up picturesquely in all the paraphernalia of the cowboy.Black-haired and white-toothed, lithe as a wolf, and endowed with agrace almost feline, it was easy to understand how this man appealed tothe imagination of the reckless young fellows of this primeval valley.Everything he did was done well. Furthermore, he looked and acted thepart of leader which he assumed.

  Rocking Horse was in a different mood from its brother. It was hard torope, and when Jed's raw-hide had fallen over its head it was necessaryto reenforce the lariat with two others. Finally the pony had to beflung down before a saddle could be put on. When Siegfried, who had beenkneeling on its head, stepped ba
ck, the outlaw staggered to its feet,already badly shaken, to find an incubus clamped to the saddle.

  No matter how it pitched, the human clothespin stuck to his seat, andapparently with as little concern as if he had been in a rowboat gentlymoved to and fro by the waves. Jed rode like a centaur, every motionattuned to those of the animal as much as if he were a part of it. Nomatter how it pounded or tossed, he stuck securely to the hurricane deckof the broncho.

  Once only he was in danger, and that because Rocking Horse flungfuriously against the wheel of a wagon and ground the rider's leg tillhe grew dizzy with the pain. For an instant he caught at the saddle hornto steady himself as the roan bucked into the open again.

  "He's pulling leather!" some one shouted.

  "Shut up, you goat!" advised the Texan good-naturedly. "Can't you seehis laig got jammed till he's groggy? Wonder is, he didn't take thedust! They don't raise better riders than he is."

  "By hockey! He's all in. Look out! Jed's falling," France cried, runningforward.

  It looked so for a moment, then Jed swam back to clear consciousnessagain, and waved them back. He began to use his quirt without mercy.

  "Might know he'd game it out," remarked Yorky.

  He did. It was a long fight, and the horse was flecked with bloody foambefore its spirit and strength failed. But the man in the saddle kepthis seat till the victory was won.

  Steve was on the spot to join heartily the murmur of applause, for hewas too good a sportsman to grudge admiration even to his enemy.

  "You're the one best bet in riders, Mr. Briscoe. It's a pleasure towatch you," he said frankly.

  Jed's narrowed eyes drifted to him. "Oh, hell!" he drawled with insolentcontempt, and turned on his heel.

  From the clump of firs a young woman was descending, and Jed went tomeet her.

  "You rode splendidly," she told him with vivid eyes. "Were you hurt whenyou were jammed again the wagon? I mean, does it still hurt?" For shenoticed that he walked with a limp.

  "I reckon I can stand the grief without an amputation. Arlie, I gotsomething to tell you."

  She looked at him in her direct fashion and waited.

  "It's about your new friend." He drew from a pocket some leaves torn outof a magazine. His finger indicated a picture. "Ever see that gentlemanbefore?"

  The girl looked at it coolly. "It seems to be Mr. Fraser taken in hisuniform; Lieutenant Fraser, I should say."

  The cattleman's face fell. "You know, then, who he is, and what he'sdoing here."

  Without evasion, her gaze met his. "I understood him to say he was anofficer in the Texas Rangers. You know why he is here."

  "You're right, I do. But do you?"

  "Well, what is it you mean? Out with it, Jed," she demanded impatiently.

  "He is here to get a man wanted in Texas, a man hiding in this valleyright now."

  "I don't believe it," she returned quickly. "And if he is, that's notyour business or mine. It's his duty, isn't it?"

  "I ain't discussing that. You know the law of the valley, Arlie."

  "I don't accept that as binding, Jed. Lots of people here don't. BecauseLost Valley used to be a nest of miscreants, it needn't always be. Idon't see what right we've got to set ourselves above the law."

  "This valley has always stood by hunted men when they reached it. That'sour custom, and I mean to stick to it."

  "Very well. I hold you to that," she answered quickly. "This man Fraseris a hunted man. He's hunted because of what he did for me and dad. Iclaim the protection of the valley for him."

  "He can have it--if he's what he says he is. But why ain't he beensquare with us? Why didn't he tell who he was?"

  "He told me."

  "That ain't enough, Arlie. If he did, you kept it quiet. We all had aright to know."

  "If you had asked him, he would have told you."

  "I ain't so sure he would. Anyhow, I don't like it. I believe he is hereto get the man I told you of. Mebbe that ain't all."

  "What more?" she scoffed.

  "This fellow is the best range detective in the country. My notion ishe's spying around about that Squaw Creek raid."

  Under the dusky skin she flushed angrily. "My notion is you're daffy,Jed. Talk sense, and I'll listen to you. You haven't a grain of proof."

  "I may get some yet," he told her sulkily.

  She laughed her disbelief. "When you do, let me know."

  And with that she gave her pony the signal to more forward.

  Nevertheless, she met the ranger at the foot of the little hill withdistinct coldness. When he came up to shake hands, she was too busydismounting to notice.

  "Your heart must be a good deal better. I suppose Lost Valley agreeswith you." She had swung down on the other side of the horse, and herglance at him across the saddle seat was like a rapier thrust.

  He was aware at once of being in disgrace with her, and it chafed himthat he had no adequate answer to her implied charge.

  "My heart's all right," he said a little gruffly.

  "Yes, it seems to be, lieutenant."

  She trailed the reins and turned away at once to find her father. Thegirl was disappointed in him. He had, in effect, lied to her. That wasbad enough; but she felt that his lie had concealed something, how muchshe scarce dared say. Her tangled thoughts were in chaos. One moment shewas ready to believe the worst; the next, it was impossible to conceivesuch a man so vile a spy as to reward hospitality with treachery.

  Yet she remembered now that it had been while she was telling of thefate of the traitor Burke that she had driven him to his lie. Or had henot told it first when she pointed out Lost Valley at his feet? Yes,it was at that moment she had noticed his pallor. He had, at least,conscience enough to be ashamed of what he was doing. But she recognizeda wide margin of difference between the possibilities of his guilt.It was one thing to come to the valley for an escaped murderer; it wasquite another to use the hospitality of his host as a means to betraythe friends of that host. Deep in her heart she could not find itpossible to convict him of the latter alternative. He was too much aman, too vitally dynamic. No; whatever else he was, she felt sure hewas not so hopelessly lost to decency. He had that electric spark ofself-respect which may coexist with many faults, but not with treachery.

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