A texas ranger, p.26
A Texas Ranger, p.26William MacLeod Raine
CHAPTER XIII -- THE WOLF HOWLS
As Steve strolled out into the moonlight, he left behind him themonotonous thumping of heavy feet and the singsong voice of the caller.
"Birdie fly out, Crow hop in, Join all hands And circle ag'in."
came to him, in the high, strident voice of Lute Perkins. He took a deepbreath of fresh, clean air, and looked about him. After the hot, dustyroom, the grove, with its green foliage, through which the moonlightfiltered, looked invitingly cool. He sauntered forward, climbed the hillup which the wooded patch straggled, and sat down, with his back to apine.
Behind the valley rampart, he could see the dim, saw-toothed Tetonpeaks, looking like ghostly shapes in the moonlight. The night waspeaceful. Faint and mellow came the sound of jovial romping from thehouse; otherwise, beneath the distant stars, a perfect stillness held.
How long he sat there, letting thoughts happen dreamily rather thanproducing them of gray matter, he did not know. A slight sound, thesnapping of a twig, brought his mind to alertness without causing theslightest movement of his body.
His first thought was that, in accordance with dance etiquette in theranch country, his revolver was in its holster under the seat of thetrap in which they had driven over. Since his week was not up, he hadexpected no attack from Jed and his friends. As for the enemy, of whomArlie had advised him, surely a public dance was the last place to temptone who apparently preferred to attack from cover. But his instinct wascertain. He did not need to look round to know he was trapped.
"I'm unarmed. You'd better come round and shoot me from in front. Itwill look better at the inquest," he said quietly.
"Don't move. You're surrounded," a voice answered.
A rope snaked forward and descended over the ranger's head, to be jerkedtight, with a suddenness that sent a pain like a knife thrust throughthe wounded shoulder. The instinct for self-preservation was already atwork in him. He fought his left arm free from the rope that pressed itto his side, and dived toward the figure at the end of the rope. Even ashe plunged, he found time to be surprised that no revolver shot echoedthrough the night, and to know that the reason was because his enemiespreferred to do their work in silence.
The man upon whom he leaped gave a startled oath and stumbled backwardover a root.
Fraser, his hand already upon the man's throat, went down too. Upon himcharged men from all directions. In the shadows, they must havehampered each other, for the ranger, despite his wound--his shoulder wasscreaming with pain--got to his knees, and slowly from his knees to hisfeet, shaking the clinging bodies from him.
Wrenching his other hand from under the rope, he fought them back as ahurt grizzly does the wolf pack gathered for the kill. None but a verypowerful man could ever have reached his feet. None less agile andsinewy than a panther could have beaten them back as at first he did.They fought in grim silence, yet the grove was full of the sounds ofbattle. The heavy breathing, the beat of shifting feet, the soft impactof flesh striking flesh, the thud of falling bodies--of these the airwas vocal. Yet, save for the gasps of sudden pain, no man broke silencesave once.
"The snake'll get away yet!" a hoarse voice cried, not loudly, but withan emphasis that indicated strong conviction.
Impossible as it seemed, the ranger might have done it but for anaccident. In the struggle, the rope had slipped to a point just belowhis knees. Fighting his way down the hill, foot by foot, the Texan feltthe rope tighten. One of his attackers flung himself against his chestand he was tripped. The pack was on him again. Here there was morelight, and though for a time the mass swayed back and forth, at lastthey hammered him down by main strength. He was bound hand and foot, anddragged back to the grove.
They faced their victim, panting deeply from their exertions. Fraserlooked round upon the circle of distorted faces, and stopped at one.Seen now, with the fury and malignancy of its triumph painted upon it,the face was one to bring bad dreams.
The lieutenant, his chest still laboring heavily, racked with thetorture of his torn shoulder, looked into that face out of the only calmeyes in the group.
"So it's you, Struve?"
"Yes, it's me--me and my friends."
"I've been looking for you high and low."
"Well, you've found me," came the immediate exultant answer.
"I reckon I'm indebted to you for this." Fraser moved his shoulderslightly.
"You'll owe me a heap more than that before the night's over."
"Your intentions were good then, I expect. Being shy a trigger fingerspoils a man's aim."
"Didn't like to risk another shot from Bald Knob, eh? Must be somediscouraging to hit only once out of three times at three hundred yards,and a scratch at that."
The convict swore. "I'll not miss this time, Mr. Lieutenant."
"You'd better not, or I'll take you back to the penitentiary where I putyou before."
"You'll never put another man there, you meddling spy," Struve criedfuriously.
"I'm not so sure of that. I know what you've got against me, but Ishould like to know what kick your friends have coming," the rangerretorted.
"You may have mine, right off the reel, Mr. Fraser, or whatever you callyourself. You came into this valley with a lie on your lips. We playedyou for a friend, and you played us for suckers. All the time you wasin a deal with the sheriff for you know what. I hate a spy like I do arattlesnake."
It was the man Yorky that spoke. Steve's eyes met his.
"So I'm a spy, am I?"
"You know best."
"Anyhow, you're going to shoot me first, and find out afterward?"
"Wrong guess. We're going to hang you." Struve, unable to keep backlonger his bitter spleen, hissed this at him.
"Yes, that's about your size, Struve. You can crow loud now, when theodds are six to one, with the one unarmed and tied at that. But what Iwant to know is--are you playing fair with your friends? Have you toldthem that every man in to-night's business will hang, sure as fate? Haveyou told them of those cowardly murders you did in Arizona and Texas?Have you told them that your life is forfeit, anyway? Do they knowyou're trying to drag them into your troubles? No? You didn't tell themthat. I'm surprised at you, Struve."
"My name's Johnson."
"Not in Arizona, it isn't. Wolf Struve it is there, wanted for murderand other sundries." He turned swiftly from him to his confederates."You fools, you're putting your heads into a noose. He's in already, andwants you in, too. Test him. Throw the end of that rope over the limb,and stand back, while he pulls me up alone. He daren't--not for hislife, he daren't. He knows that whoever pulls on that rope hangs himselfas surely as he hangs me."
The men looked at each other, and at Struve. Were they being led intotrouble to pay this man's scores off for him? Suspicion stirred uneasilyin them.
"That's right, too. Let Johnson pull him up," Slim Leroy said sullenly.
"Sure. You've got more at stake than we have. It's up to you, Johnson,"Yorky agreed.
"That's right," a third chipped in.
"We'll all pull together, boys," Struve insinuated. "It's only a bluffof his. Don't let him scare you off."
"He ain't scaring me off any," declared Yorky. "He's a spy, and he'sgetting what is coming to him. But you're a stranger too, Johnson. Idon't trust you any--not any farther than I can see you, my friend.I'll stand for being an aider and abettor, but I reckon if there'sany hanging to be done you'll have to be the sheriff," replied Yorkystiffly.
Struve turned his sinister face on one and another of them. His lipswere drawn back, so that the wolfish teeth gleamed in the moonlight. Hefelt himself being driven into a trap, from which there was no escape.He dared not let Fraser go with his life, for he knew that, sooneror later, the ranger would run him to earth, and drag him back tothe punishment that was awaiting him in the South. Nor did he want toshoulder the responsibility of murdering this man before five witnesses.
Came the sound of running
"What's that?" asked Slim nervously.
"Where are you, Steve?" called a voice.
"Here," the ranger shouted back.
A moment later Dick France burst into the group. "What's doing?" hepanted.
The ranger laughed hardily. "Nothing, Dick. Nothing at all. Some of theboys had notions of a necktie party, but they're a little shy of sand.Have you met Mr. Struve, Dick? I know you're acquainted with the others,Mr. Struve is from Yuma. An old friend of mine. Fact is, I induced himto locate at Yuma."
Dick caught at the rope, but Yorky flung him roughly back.
"This ain't your put in, France," he said. "It's up to Johnson." And tothe latter: "Get busy, if you're going to."
"He's a spy on you-all, just the same as he is on me," blurted theconvict.
"That's a lie, Struve," pronounced the lieutenant evenly. "I'm going totake you back with me, but I've got nothing against these men. I wantto announce right now, no matter who tells a different story, that Ihaven't lost any Squaw Creek raiders and I'm not hunting any."
"You hear? He came into this valley after me."
"Wrong again, Struve. I didn't know you were here. But I know now, andI serve notice that I'm going to take you back with me, dead or alive.That's what I'm paid for, and that's what I'm going to do."
It was amazing to hear this man, with a rope round his neck, announcecalmly what he was going to do to the man who had only to pull that ropeto send him into eternity. The very audacity of it had its effect.
Slim spoke up. "I don't reckon we better go any farther with this thing,Yorky."
"No, I don't reckon you had," cut in Dick sharply. "I'll not stand forit."
Again the footsteps of a running man reached them. It was Siegfried. Heplunged into the group like a wild bull, shook the hair out of his eyes,and planted himself beside Fraser. With one backward buffet of his greatarm he sent Johnson heels over head. He caught Yorky by the shoulders,strong man though the latter was, and shook him till his teeth rattled,after which he flung him reeling a dozen yards to the ground. TheNorwegian was reaching for Dick when Fraser stopped him.
"That's enough of a clean-up right now, Sig. Dick butted in like you tohelp me," he explained.
"The durned coyotes!" roared the big Norseman furiously, leaping atLeroy and tossing him over his head as an enraged bull does. He turnedupon the other three, shaking his tangled mane, but they were already inflight.
"I'll show them. I'll show them," he kept saying as he came back to theman he had rescued.
"You've showed them plenty, Sig. Cut out the rough house before you maimsome of these gents who didn't invite you to their party."
The ranger felt the earth sway beneath him as he spoke. His wound hadbeen torn loose in the fight, and was bleeding. Limply he leaned againstthe tree for support.
It was at this moment he caught sight of Arlie and Briscoe as they ranup. Involuntarily he straightened almost jauntily. The girl looked athim with that deep, eager look of fear he had seen before, and met thatunconquerable smile of his.
The rope was still round his neck and the coat was stripped from hisback. He was white to the lips, and she could see he could scarcestand, even with the support of the pine trunk. His face was bruised andbattered. His hat was gone; and hidden somewhere in his crisp short hairwas a cut from which blood dripped to the forehead. The bound arm hadbeen torn from its bandages in the unequal battle he had fought. Butfor all his desperate plight he still carried the invincible look thatnothing less than death can rob some men of.
The fretted moonlight, shifting with the gentle motion of the foliageabove, fell full upon him now and showed a wet, red stain against thewhite shirt. Simultaneously outraged nature collapsed, and he began tosink to the ground.
Arlie gave a little cry and ran forward. Before he reached the groundhe had fainted; yet scarcely before she was on her knees beside him withhis head in her arms.
"Bring water, Dick, and tell Doc Lee to come at once. He'll be inthe back room smoking. Hurry!" She looked fiercely round upon the menassembled. "I think they have killed him. Who did this? Was it you,Yorky? Was it you that murdered him?"
"I bane t'ink it take von hoondred of them to do it," said Siegfried."Dat fallar, Johnson, he bane at the bottom of it."
"Then why didn't you kill him? Aren't you Steve's friend? Didn't he saveyour life?" she panted, passion burning in her beautiful eyes.
Siegfried nodded. "I bane Steve's friend, yah! And Ay bane kill Johnsoneef Steve dies."
Briscoe, furious at this turn of the tide which had swept Arlie'ssympathies back to his enemy, followed Struve as he sneaked deeper intothe shadow of the trees. The convict was nursing a sprained wrist whenJed reached him.
"What do you think you've been trying to do, you sap-headed idiot?" Jeddemanded. "Haven't you sense enough to choose a better time than onewhen the whole settlement is gathered to help him? And can't you evermake a clean job of it, you chuckle-minded son of a greaser?"
Struve turned, snarling, on him. "That'll be enough from you, Briscoe.I've stood about all I'm going to stand just now."
"You'll stand for whatever I say," retorted Jed. "You've cooked yourgoose in this valley by to-night's fool play. I'm the only man that canpull you through. Bite on that fact, Mr. Struve, before you unload yourbile on me."
The convict's heart sank. He felt it to be the truth. The last thing hehad heard was Siegfried's threat to kill him.
Whether Fraser lived or died he was in a precarious position and he knewit.
"I know you're my friend, Jed," he whined. "I'll do what you say. Standby me and I'll sure work with you."
"Then if you take my advice you'll sneak down to the corral, get yourhorse, and light out for the run. Lie there till I see you."
"The Swede won't trouble you unless this Texan dies. I'll send you wordin time if he does."
Later a skulking shadow sneaked into the corral and out again. Once outof hearing, it leaped to the back of the horse and galloped wildly intothe night.
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