A texas ranger, p.22
A Texas Ranger, p.22William MacLeod Raine
CHAPTER IX -- A SHOT FROM BALD KNOB
A bunch of young steers which had strayed from their range were to bedriven to the Dillon ranch, and the boss of the rodeo appointed Franceand Fraser to the task.
"Yo'll have company home, honey," he told his daughter, "and yo'll beable to give the boys a hand if they need it. These hill cattle arestill some wild, though we've been working them a week. Yo're a heapbetter cowboy than some that works more steady at the business."
Briscoe nodded. "You bet! I ain't forgot that day Arlie rode Big Timberwith me two years ago. She wasn't sixteen then, but she herded them hillsteers like they belonged to a milk bunch."
He spoke his compliment patly enough, but somehow the girl had animpression that he was thinking of something else. She was right, for ashe helped gather the drive his mind was busy with a problem. Presentlyhe dismounted to tighten a cinch, and made a signal to a young fellowknown as Slim Leroy. The latter was a new and tender recruit to Jed'sband of miscreants. He drew up beside his leader and examined one of thefore hoofs of his pony.
"Slim, I'm going to have Dillon send you for the mail to-day. When hetells you, that's the first you know about it. Understand? You'll haveto take the hill cut to Jack Rabbit Run on your way in. At the cabinback of the aspens, inquire for a man that calls himself Johnson. Ifhe's there, give him this message: 'This afternoon from Bald Knob.'Remember! Just those words, and nothing more. If he isn't there, forgetthe message. You'll know the man you want because he is shy his triggerfinger and has a ragged scar across his right cheek. Make no mistakeabout this, Slim."
"Sure I won't."
Briscoe, having finished cinching, swung to his saddle and rode up tosay good-by to Arlie.
"Hope you'll have no trouble with this bunch. If you push right alongyou'd ought to get home by night," he told her.
Arlie agreed carelessly. "I don't expect any trouble with them. So-long,Jed."
It would not have been her choice to ride home with the lieutenant ofrangers, but since her father had made the appointment publicly she didnot care to make objection. Yet she took care to let Fraser see that hewas in her black books. The men rode toward the rear of the herd, one oneach side, and Arlie fell in beside her old playmate, Dick. She laughedand talked with him about a hundred things in which Steve could have hadno part, even if he had been close enough to catch more than one wordout of twenty. Not once did she even look his way. Quite plainly she hadtaken pains to forget his existence.
"It was Briscoe's turn the other day," mused the Texan. "It's mine now.I wonder when it will be Dick's to get put out in the cold!"
Nevertheless, though he tried to act the philosopher, it cut him thatthe high-spirited girl had condemned him. He felt himself in a falseposition from which he could not easily extricate himself. The worstof it was that if it came to a showdown he could not expect the simpletruth to exonerate him.
From where they rode there drifted to him occasionally the sound of thegay voices of the young people. It struck him for the first time thathe was getting old. Arlie could not be over eighteen, and Dickperhaps twenty-one. Maybe young people like that thought a fellow oftwenty-seven a Methusaleh.
After a time the thirsty cattle smelt water and hit a bee line sosteadily for it that they needed no watching. Every minute or two oneof the leaders stretched out its neck and let out a bellow withoutslackening its pace.
Steve lazed on his pony, shifting his position to ease his cramped limbsafter the manner of the range rider. In spite of himself, his eyes woulddrift toward the jaunty little figure on the pinto. The masculine in himapproved mightily her lissom grace and the proud lilt of her darkhead, with its sun-kissed face set in profile to him. He thought herserviceable costume very becoming, from the pinched felt hat pinned tothe dark mass of hair, and the red silk kerchief knotted loosely roundthe pretty throat, to the leggings beneath the corduroy skirt and theflannel waist with sleeves rolled up in summer-girl fashion to leave thetanned arms bare to the dimpled elbows.
The trail, winding through a narrow defile, brought them side by sideagain.
"Ever notice what a persistent color buckskin is, Steve?" inquiredFrance, by way of bringing him into the conversation. "It's strong inevery one of these cattle, though the old man has been trying to get ridof it for ten years."
"You mustn't talk to me, Dick," responded his friend gravely. "LittleWillie told a lie, and he's being stood in a corner."
Arlie flushed angrily, opened her mouth to speak, and, changing hermind, looked at him witheringly. He didn't wither, however. Instead, hesmiled broadly, got out his mouth organ, and cheerfully entertained themwith his favorite, "I Met My Love In the Alamo."
The hot blood under dusky skin held its own in her cheeks. She wasfurious with him, and dared not trust herself to speak. As soon as theyhad passed through the defile she spurred forward, as if to turn theleaders. France turned to his friend and laughed ruefully.
"She's full of pepper, Steve."
The ranger nodded. "She's all right, Dick. If you want to know, she'sgot a right to make a doormat of me. I lied to her. I was up againstit, and I kinder had to. You ride along and join her. If you want to getright solid, tell her how many kinds of a skunk I am. Worst of it is, Iain't any too sure I'm not."
"I'm sure for you then, Steve," the lad called back, as he loped forwardafter the girl.
He was so sure, that he began to praise his friend to Arlie, to tell herof what a competent cowman he was, how none of them could make a cut orrope a wild steer like him. She presently wanted to know whether Dickcould not find something more interesting to talk about.
He could not help smiling at her downright manner. "You've surely got itin for him, Arlie. I thought you liked him."
She pulled up her horse, and looked at him. "What made you think that?Did he tell you so?"
Dick fairly shouted. "You do rub it in, girl, when you've got a down ona fellow. No, he didn't tell me. You did."
"Me?" she protested indignantly. "I never did."
"Oh, you didn't say so, but I don't need a church to fall on me before Ican take a hint. You acted as though you liked him that day you and himcame riding into camp."
"I didn't do any such thing, Dick France. I don't like him at all," verydecidedly.
"All the boys do--all but Jed. I don't reckon he does."
"Do I have to like him because the boys do?" she demanded.
"O' course not." Dick stopped, trying to puzzle it out. "He says youain't to blame, that he lied to you. That seems right strange, too. Itain't like Steve to lie."
"How do you know so much about him? You haven't known him a week."
"That's what Jed says. I say it ain't a question of time. Some men I'veknew ten years I ain't half so sure of. He's a man from the ground up.Any one could tell that, before they had seen him five minutes."
Secretly, the girl was greatly pleased. She so wanted to believe thatDick was right. It was what she herself had thought.
"I wish you'd seen him the day he pulled Siegfried out of Lost Creek.Tell you, I thought they were both goners," Dick continued.
"I expect it was most ankle-deep," she scoffed. "Hello, we're past BaldKnob!"
"They both came mighty nigh handing in their checks."
"I didn't know that, though I knew, of course, he was fearless," Arliesaid.
"What's that?" Dick drew in his horse sharply, and looked back.
The sound of a rifle shot echoed from hillside to hillside. Like astreak of light, the girl's pinto flashed past him. He heard her give asobbing cry of anguish. Then he saw that Steve was slipping very slowlyfrom his saddle.
A second shot rang out. The light was beginning to fail, but he made outa man's figure crouched among the small pines on the shoulder of BaldKnob. Dick jerked out his revolver as he rode back, and fired twice. Hewas quite out of pistol range, but he wanted the man in ambush to seethat help was at hand. He saw Arlie fling herself from her pony in timeto support the Texan just as he sank to the ground.
"She'll take care of Steve. It's me for that murderer," the young manthought.
Acting upon that impulse, he slid from his horse and slipped into thesagebrush of the hillside. By good fortune he was wearing a gray shirtof a shade which melted into that of the underbrush. Night falls swiftlyin the mountains, and already dusk was softly spreading itself over thehills.
Dick went up a draw, where young pines huddled together in the trough;and from the upper end of this he emerged upon a steep ridge, eyes andears alert for the least sign of human presence. A third shot had rungout while he was in the dense mass of foliage of the evergreens, but nowsilence lay heavy all about him. The gathering darkness blurred detail,so that any one of a dozen bowlders might be a shield for a crouchingman.
Once, nerves at a wire edge from the strain on him, he thought he saw amoving figure. Throwing up his gun, he fired quickly. But he musthave been mistaken, for, shortly afterward, he heard some one crashingthrough dead brush at a distance.
"He's on the run, whoever he is. Guess I'll get back to Steve," decidedFrance wisely.
He found his friend stretched on the ground, with his head in Arlie'slap.
"Is it very bad?" he asked the girl.
"I don't know. There's no light. Whatever shall we do?" she moaned.
"I'm a right smart of a nuisance, ain't I?" drawled the wounded manunexpectedly.
She leaned forward quickly. "Where are you hit?"
"In the shoulder, ma'am."
"Can you ride, Steve? Do you reckon you could make out the five miles?"Dick asked.
Arlie answered for him. She had felt the inert weight of his heavy bodyand knew that he was beyond helping himself. "No. Is there no housenear? There's Alec Howard's cabin."
"He's at the round-up, but I guess we had better take Steve there--if wecould make out to get him that far."
The girl took command quietly. "Unsaddle Teddy."
She had unloosened his shirt and was tying her silk kerchief over thewound, from which blood was coming in little jets.
"We can't carry him," she decided. "It's too far. We'll have to lift himto the back of the horse, and let him lie there. Steady, Dick. That'sright. You must hold him on, while I lead the horse."
Heavy as he was, they somehow hoisted him, and started. He had faintedagain, and hung limply, with his face buried in the mane of the pony. Itseemed an age before the cabin loomed, shadow-like, out of the darkness.They found the door unlocked, as usual, and carried him in to the bed.
"Give me your knife, Dick," Arlie ordered quietly. "And I want water. Ifthat's a towel over there, bring it."
"Just a moment. I'll strike a light, and we'll see where we're at."
"No. We'll have to work in the dark. A light might bring them down onus." She had been cutting the band of the shirt, and now ripped it so asto expose the wounded shoulder.
Dick took a bucket to the creek, and presently returned with it. In hisright hand he carried his revolver. When he reached the cabin he gave anaudible sigh of relief and quickly locked the door.
"Of course you'll have to go for help, Dick. Bring old Doc Lee."
"Why, Arlie, I can't leave you here alone. What are you talking about?"
"You'll have to. It's the only thing to do. You'll have to give me yourrevolver. And, oh, Dick, don't lose a moment on the way."
He was plainly troubled. "I just can't leave you here alone, girl. Whatwould your father say if anything happened? I don't reckon anythingwill, but we can't tell. No, I'll stay here, too. Steve must take hischance."
"You'll not stay." She flamed round upon him, with the fierce passionof a tigress fighting for her young. "You'll go this minute--this veryminute!"
"But don't you see I oughtn't to leave you? Anybody would tell youthat," he pleaded.
"And you call yourself his friend," she cried, in a low, bitter voice.
"I call myself yours, too," he made answer doggedly.
"Then go. Go this instant. You'll go, anyway; but if you're my friend,you'll go gladly, and bring help to save us both."
"I wisht I knew what to do," he groaned.
Her palms fastened on his shoulders. She was a creature transformed.Such bravery, such feminine ferocity, such a burning passion of thespirit, was altogether outside of his experience of her or any otherwoman. He could no more resist her than he could fly to the top of BaldKnob.
"I'll go, Arlie."
"And bring help soon. Get Doc Lee here soon as you can. Leave word forarmed men to follow. Don't wait for them."
"Take his Teddy horse. It can cover ground faster than yours."
With plain misgivings, he left her, and presently she heard the sound ofhis galloping horse. It seemed to her for a moment as if she must callhim back, but she strangled the cry in her throat. She locked the doorand bolted it, then turned back to the bed, upon which the wounded manwas beginning to moan in his delirium.
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