A texas ranger, p.24
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       A Texas Ranger, p.24

           William MacLeod Raine
 
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  CHAPTER XI -- THE FAT IN THE FIRE

  For two days Fraser remained in the cabin of the stockman Howard, Francemaking it his business to see that the place was never left unguardedfor a moment. At the end of that time the fever had greatly abated, andhe was doing so well that Doctor Lee decided it would be better to movehim to the Dillon ranch for the convenience of all parties.

  This was done, and the patient continued steadily to improve. Hisvigorous constitution, helped by the healthy, clean, outdoor life hehad led, stood him in good stead. Day by day he renewed the blood hehad lost. Soon he was eating prodigious dinners, and between meals wasdrinking milk with an egg beaten in it.

  On a sunny forenoon, when he lay in the big window of the living room,reading a magazine, Arlie entered, a newspaper in her hand. Her eyeswere strangely bright, even for her, and she had a manner of repressedexcitement, Her face was almost colorless.

  "Here's some more in the Avalanche about our adventure near GimletButte," she told him, waving the paper.

  "Nothing like keeping in the public eye," said Steve, grinning. "I don'treckon our little picnic at Bald Knob is likely to get in the Avalanche,though. It probably hasn't any correspondent at Lost Valley. Anyhow, I'mhoping not."

  "Mr. Fraser, there is something in this paper I want you to explain.But tell me first when it was you shot this man Faulkner. I mean at justwhat time in the fight."

  "Why, I reckon it must have been just before I ducked."

  "That's funny, too." She fixed her direct, fearless gaze on him. "Theevidence at the coroner's jury shows that it was in the early part ofthe fight he was shot, before father and I left you."

  "No, that couldn't have been, Miss Arlie, because----"

  "Because----" she prompted, smiling at him in a peculiar manner.

  He flushed, and could only say that the newspapers were always gettingthings wrong.

  "But this is the evidence at the coroner's inquest," she said, fallinggrave again on the instant. "I understand one thing now, very clearly,and that is that Faulkner was killed early in the fight, and the otherman was wounded in the ankle near the finish."

  He shook his head obstinately. "No, I reckon not."

  "Yet it is true. What's more, you knew it all the time."

  "You ce'tainly jump to conclusions, Miss Arlie."

  "And you let them arrest you, without telling them the truth! And theycame near lynching you! And there's a warrant out now for your arrestfor the murder of Faulkner, while all the time I killed him, and youknew it!"

  He gathered together his lame defense. "You run ahaid too fast for me,ma'am. Supposing he was hit while we were all there together, how was Ito know who did it?"

  "You knew it couldn't have been you, for he wasn't struck with arevolver. It couldn't have been dad, since he had his shotgun loadedwith buckshot."

  "What difference did it make?" he wanted to know impatiently. "Say I'dhave explained till kingdom come that I borrowed the rifle from a friendfive minutes after Faulkner was hit--would anybody have believed me?Would it have made a bit of difference?"

  Her shining eyes were more eloquent than a thousand tongues. "I don'tsay it would, but there was always the chance. You didn't take it. Youwould have let them hang you, without speaking the word that brought meinto it. Why?"

  "I'm awful obstinate when I get my back up," he smiled.

  "That wasn't it. You did it to save a girl you had never seen but once.I want to know why."

  "All right. Have it your own way. But don't ask me to explain thewhyfors. I'm no Harvard professor."

  "I know," she said softly. She was not looking at him, but out of thewindow, and there were tears in her voice.

  "Sho! Don't make too much of it. We'll let it go that I ain't allcoyote, after all. But that don't entitle me to any reward of merit.Now, don't you cry, Miss Arlie. Don't you."

  She choked back the tears, and spoke in deep self-scorn. "No! You don'tdeserve anything except what you've been getting from me--suspicionand distrust and hard words! You haven't done anything worth speakingof--just broke into a quarrel that wasn't yours, at the risk of yourlife; then took it on your shoulders to let us escape; and, afterward,when you were captured, refused to drag me in, because I happen to be agirl! But it's not worth mentioning that you did all this for strangers,and that later you did not tell even me, because you knew it wouldtrouble me that I had killed him, though in self-defense. And to thinkthat all the time I've been full of hateful suspicions about you! Oh,you don't know how I despise myself!"

  She let her head fall upon her arm on the table, and sobbed.

  Fraser, greatly disturbed, patted gently the heavy coil of blue-blackhair.

  "Now, don't you, Arlie; don't you. I ain't worth it. Honest, I ain't. Idid what it was up to me to do. Not a thing more. Dick would have doneit. Any of the boys would. Now, let's look at what you've done for me."

  From under the arm a muffled voice insisted she had done nothing butsuspect him.

  "Hold on, girl. Play fair. First off you ride sixty miles to help mewhen I'm hunted right hard. You bring me to your home in this valleywhere strangers ain't over and above welcome just now. You learn I'm anofficer and still you look out for me and fight for me, till you makefriends for me. It's through you I get started right with the boys. Onyour say-so they give me the glad hand. You learn I've lied to you, andtwo or three hours later you save my life. You sit there steady, with myhaid in your lap, while some one is plugging away at us. You get me to ahouse, take care of my wounds, and hold the fort alone in the night tillhelp comes. Not only that, but you drive my enemy away. Later, you bringme home, and nurse me like I was a long-lost brother. What I did for youain't in the same class with what you've done for me."

  "But I was suspicious of you all the time."

  "So you had a right to be. That ain't the point, which is that a girldid all that for a man she thought might be an enemy and a low-down spy.Men are expected to take chances like I did, but girls ain't. You took'em. If I lived a thousand years, I couldn't tell you all the thanks Ifeel."

  "Ah! It makes it worse that you're that kind of a man. But I'm going toshow you whether I trust you." Her eyes were filled with the glad lightof her resolve. She spoke with a sort of proud humility. "Do you know,there was a time when I thought you might have--I didn't really believeit, but I thought it just possible--that you might have come here to getevidence against the Squaw Creek raiders? You'll despise me, but it'sthe truth."

  His face lost color. "And now?" he asked quietly.

  "Now? I would as soon suspect my father--or myself! I'll show you what Ithink. The men in it were Jed Briscoe and Yorky and Dick France."

  "Stop," he cried hoarsely.

  "Is it your wound?" she said quickly.

  "No. That's all right. But you musn't tell----"

  "I'm telling, to show whether I trust you. Jed and Yorky and Dick andSlim----"

  She stopped to listen. Her father's voice was calling her. She rose fromher seat.

  "Wait a moment. There's something I've got to tell you," the Texangroaned.

  "I'll be back in a moment. Dad wants to see me about some letters."

  And with that she was gone. Whatever the business was, it detained herlonger than she expected. The minutes slipped away, and still she didnot return. A step sounded in the hall, a door opened, and Jed Briscoestood before him.

  "You're here, are you?" he said.

  The Texan measured looks with him. "Yes, I'm here."

  "Grand-standing still, I reckon."

  "If you could only learn to mind your own affairs," the Texan suggestedevenly.

  "You'll wish I could before I'm through with you."

  "Am I to thank you for that little courtesy from Bald Knob the otherevening?"

  "Not directly. At three hundred yards, I could have shot a heapstraighter than that. The fool must have been drunk."

  "You'll have to excuse him. It was beginning to get dark. His intentionswere good."

  There
was a quick light step behind him, and Arlie came into the room.She glanced quickly from one to the other, and there was apprehension inher look.

  "I've come to see Lieutenant Fraser on business," Briscoe explained,with an air patently triumphant.

  Arlie made no offer to leave the room. "He's hardly up to business yet,is he?" she asked, as carelessly as she could.

  "Then we'll give it another name. I'm making a neighborly call to askhow he is, and to return some things he lost."

  Jed's hand went into his pocket and drew forth leisurely a photograph.This he handed to Arlie right side up, smiling the while, with a kind ofmasked deviltry.

  "Found it in Alec Howard's cabin. Seems your coat was hanging over theback of a chair, lieutenant, and this and a paper fell out. One of theboys must have kicked it to one side, and it was overlooked. Later, Iran across it. So I'm bringing it back to you."

  In spite of herself Arlie's eyes fell to the photograph. It was asnapshot of the ranger and a very attractive young woman. They weresmiling into each other's eyes with a manner of perfect and friendlyunderstanding. To see it gave Arlie a pang. Flushing at her mistake, sheturned the card over and handed it to the owner.

  "Sorry. I looked without thinking," she said in a low voice.

  Fraser nodded his acceptance of her apology, but his words and his eyeswere for his enemy. "You mentioned something else you had found, seemsto me."

  Behind drooping eyelids Jed was malevolently feline. "Seems to me Idid."

  From his pocket came slowly a folded paper. He opened and looked itover at leisure before his mocking eyes lifted again to the wounded man."This belongs to you, too, but I know you'll excuse me if I keep it toshow to the boys before returning it."

  "So you've read it," Arlie broke in scornfully.

  He grinned at her, and nodded. "Yes, I've read it, my dear. I had toread it, to find out whose it was. Taken by and large, it's a rightinteresting document, too."

  He smiled at the ranger maliciously, yet with a certain catlike pleasurein tormenting his victim. Arlie began to feel a tightening of herthroat, a sinking of the heart. But Fraser looked at the man with aquiet, scornful steadfastness. He knew what was coming, and had decidedupon his course.

  "Seems to be a kind of map, lieutenant. Here's Gimlet Butte and the HalfWay House and Sweetwater Dam and the blasted pine. Looks like it mightbe a map from the Butte to this part of the country. Eh, Mr. Fraser fromTexas?"

  "And if it is?"

  "Then I should have to ask you how you come by it, seeing as the map isdrawn on Sheriff Brandt's official stationery," Jed rasped swiftly.

  "I got it from Sheriff Brandt, Mr. Briscoe, since you want to know.You're not entitled to the information, but I'll make you a gift of it.He gave it to me to guide me here."

  Even Briscoe was taken aback. He had expected evasion, denial, anythingbut a bold acceptance of his challenge. His foe watched the warinesssettle upon him by the narrowing of his eyes.

  "So the sheriff knew you were coming?"

  "Yes."

  "I thought you broke jail. That was the story I had dished up to me."

  "I did, with the help of the sheriff."

  "Oh, with the help of the sheriff? Come to think of it, that soundsright funny--a sheriff helping his prisoner to escape."

  "Yet it is true, as it happens."

  "I don't doubt it, lieutenant. Fact is, I had some such notion all thetime. Now, I wonder why-for he took so friendly an interest in you."

  "I had a letter of introduction to him from a friend in Texas. When heknew who I was, he decided he couldn't afford to have me lynched withouttrying to save me."

  "I see. And the map?"

  "This was the only part of the country in which I would be safe fromcapture. He knew I had a claim on some of the Cedar Mountain people,because it was to help them I had got into trouble."

  "Yes, I can see that." Arlie nodded quickly. "Of course, that is justwhat the sheriff would think."

  "Folks can always see what they want to, Arlie," Jed commented. "Now, Ican't see all that, by a lot."

  "It isn't necessary you should, Mr. Briscoe," Fraser retorted.

  "Or else I see a good deal more, lieutenant," Jed returned, with hissmooth smile. "Mebbe the sheriff helped you on your way because you'resuch a good detective. He's got ambitions, Brandt has. So has Hilliard,the prosecuting attorney. Happen to see him, by the way?"

  "Yes."

  Jed nodded. "I figured you had. Yes, it would be Hilliard worked thescheme out, I expect."

  "You're a good deal of a detective yourself, Mr. Briscoe," the Texanlaughed hardily. "Perhaps I could get you a job in the rangers."

  "There may be a vacancy there soon," Jed agreed.

  "What's the use of talking that way, Jed? Are you threatening Mr.Fraser? If anything happens to him, I'll remember this," Arlie told him.

  "Have I mentioned any threats, Arlie? It is well known that LieutenantFraser has enemies here. It don't take a prophet to tell that, afterwhat happened the other night."

  "Any more than it takes a prophet to tell that you are one of them."

  "I play my own hand. I don't lie down before him, or any other man. He'dbetter not get in my way, unless he's sure he's a better man than I am."

  "But he isn't in your way," Arlie insisted. "He has told a plain story.I believe every word of it."

  "I notice he didn't tell any of his plain story until we proved it onhim. He comes through with his story after he's caught with thegoods. Don't you know that every criminal that is caught has a smoothexplanation?"

  "I haven't any doubt Mr. Briscoe will have one when his turn comes," theranger remarked.

  Jed wheeled on him. His eyes glittered menace. "You've said one word toomuch. I'll give you forty-eight hours to get out of this valley."

  "How dare you, Jed--and in my house!" Arlie cried. "I won't have it. Iwon't have blood shed between you."

  "It's up to him," answered the cattleman, his jaw set like a vise."Persuade him to git out, and there'll be no blood shed."

  "You have no right to ask it of him. You ought not----" She stopped,aware of the futility of urging a moral consideration upon the man, andfell back upon the practical. "He couldn't travel that soon, even if hewanted to. He's not strong enough. You know that."

  "All right. We'll call it a week. If he's still here a week from to-day,there will be trouble."

  With that, he turned on his heel and left the room. They heard his spurstrailing across the porch and jingling down the steps, after whichthey caught a momentary vision of him, dark and sinister, as his horseflashed past the window.

  The ranger smiled, but rather seriously. "The fat's in the fire now,sure enough, ma'am."

  She turned anxiously upon him. "Why did you tell him all that? Why didyou let him go away, believing you were here as a spy to trap him andhis friends?"

  "I let him have the truth. Anyhow, I couldn't have made good with adenial. He had the evidence. I can't keep him from believing what hewants to."

  "He'll tell all his friends. He'll exaggerate the facts and stir upsentiment against you. He'll say you came here as a detective, to getevidence against the Squaw Creek raiders."

  "Then he'll tell the truth!"

  She took it in slowly, with a gathering horror. "The truth!" sherepeated, almost under her breath. "You don't mean----You can'tmean----Are you here as a spy upon my friends?"

  "I didn't know they were your friends when I took the job. If you'lllisten, I'll explain."

  Words burst from her in gathering bitterness.

  "What is there to explain, sir? The facts cry to heaven. I brought youinto this valley, gave you the freedom of our home against my father'sfirst instinct. I introduced you to my friends, and no doubt they toldyou much you wanted to know. They are simple, honest folks, who don'tknow a spy when they see one. And I--fool that I am--I vouched for you.More, I stood between you and the fate you deserved. And, lastly, in myblind conceit, I have told you the names of the men in the Squ
aw Creektrouble. If I had only known--and I had all the evidence, but I was soblind I would not see you were a snake in the grass."

  He put out a hand to stop her, and she drew back as if his touch werepollution. From the other side of the room, she looked across at him inbitter scorn.

  "I shall make arrangements to have you taken out of the valley at once,sir."

  "You needn't take the trouble, Miss Arlie. I'm not going out of thevalley. If you'll have me taken to Alec Howard's shack, which is whereyou brought me from, I'll be under obligations to you."

  "Whatever you are, I'm not going to have your blood on my hands. You'vegot to leave the valley."

  "I have to thank you for all your kindness to me. If you'd extend it atrifle further and listen to what I've got to say, I'd be grateful."

  "I don't care to hear your excuses. Go quickly, sir, before you meet theend you deserve, and give up the poor men I have betrayed to you." Shespoke in a choked voice, as if she could scarce breathe.

  "If you'd only listen before you----"

  "I've listened to you too long. I was so sure I knew more than myfather, than my friends. I'll listen no more."

  The Texan gave it up. "All right, ma'am. Just as you say. If you'llorder some kind of a rig for me, I'll not trouble you longer. I'm sorrythat it's got to be this way. Maybe some time you'll see it different."

  "Never," she flashed passionately, and fled from the room.

  He did not see her again before he left. Bobbie came to get him in alight road trap they had. The boy looked at him askance, as if he knewsomething was wrong. Presently they turned a corner and left the ranchshut from sight in a fold of the hills.

  At the first division of the road Fraser came to a difference of opinionwith Bobbie.

  "Arlie said you was going to leave the valley. She told me I was to takeyou to Speed's place."

  "She misunderstood. I am going to Alec Howard's."

  "But that ain't what she told me."

  Steve took the reins from him, and turned into the trail that led toHoward's place. "You can explain to her, Bobbie, that you couldn't makeme see it that way."

  An hour later, he descended upon Howard--a big, rawboned ranchman, whohad succumbed quickly to a deep friendship for this "Admirable Crichton"of the plains.

  "Hello, Steve! Glad to death to see you. Hope you've come to stay, youold pie eater," he cried joyously, at sight of the Texan.

  Fraser got down. "Wait here a moment, Bobbie. I want to have a talk withAlec. I may go on with you."

  They went into the cabin, and Fraser sat down. He was still far fromstrong.

  "What's up, Steve?" the rancher asked.

  "You asked me to stay, Alec. Before I say whether I will or not, I'vegot a story to tell you. After I've told it, you can ask me again if youwant me to stop with you. If you don't ask me, I'll ride off with theboy."

  "All right. Fire ahead, old hoss. I'll ask you fast enough."

  The Texan told his story from the beginning. Only one thing heomitted--that Arlie had told him the name of the Squaw Creek raiders.

  "There are the facts, Alec. You've got them from beginning to end. It'sup to you. Do you want me here?"

  "Before I answer that, I'll have to put a question myse'f, Steve. Why doyou want to stay? Why not leave the valley while you're still able to?"

  "Because Jed Briscoe put it up to me that I'd got to leave within aweek. I'll go when I'm good and ready."

  Alec nodded his appreciation of the point. "Sure. You don't want tosneak out, with yore tail betwixt yore laigs. That brings up anotherquestion, Steve. What about the Squaw Creek sheep raiders? Justfor argument, we'll put it that some of them are my friends. Youunderstand--just for argument. Are you still aiming to run them down?"

  Fraser met his frank question frankly. "No, Alec, I've had to give upthat notion long since--soon as I began to guess they were friends ofMiss Arlie. I'm going back to tell Hilliard so. But I ain't going to berun out by Briscoe."

  "Good enough. Put her there, son. This shack's yore home till hellfreezes over, Steve."

  "You haven't any doubts about me, Alec. If you have, better say so now."

  "Doubts? I reckon not. Don't I know a man when I see one? I'm plumbsurprised at Arlie." He strode to the door, and called to Bobbie: "Rollalong home, son. Yore passenger is going to stay a spell with me."

  "Of course, I understand what this means, Alec. Jed and his crowd aren'tgoing to be any too well pleased when they learn you have taken me in.They may make you trouble," the ranger said.

  The big cow man laughed. "Oh, cut it out, Steve. Jed don't have to O. K.my guest list. Not on yore life. I'm about ready for a ruction with thatyoung man, anyway. He's too blamed bossy. I ain't wearing his brand.Fact is, I been having notions this valley has been suffering from toomuch Briscoe. Others are sharing that opinion with me. Ask Dick France.Ask Arlie, for that matter."

  "I'm afraid I'm off that young lady's list of friends."

  "Sho! She'll come round. She's some hot-haided. It always was her wayto get mad first, and find out why afterward. But don't make any mistakeabout her, Steve. She's the salt of the earth, Arlie Dillon is. Shefigured it out you wasn't playing it quite on the square with her. Onctshe's milled it around a spell, she'll see things different. I'veknowed her since she was knee-high, and I tell you she's a game littlethoroughbred."

  The Texan looked at him a moment, then stared out of the window.

  "We won't quarrel about that any, Alec. I'll indorse those sentiments,and then some, even if she did call me a snake in the grass."

 
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