A texas ranger, p.29
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       A Texas Ranger, p.29

           William MacLeod Raine
 
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  CHAPTER XVI -- THE WOLF BITES

  Steve came drowsily to consciousness from confused dreams of a cattlestampede and the click of rifles in the hands of enemies who had thedrop on him. The rare, untempered sunshine of the Rockies poured intohis window from a world outside, wonderful as the early morning ofcreation. The hillside opposite was bathed miraculously in a flood oflight, in which grasshoppers fiddled triumphantly their joy in life.The sources of his dreams discovered themselves in the bawl of thirstycattle and the regular clicking of a windmill.

  A glance at his watch told him that it was six o'clock.

  "Time to get up, Steve," he told himself, and forthwith did.

  He chose a rough crash towel, slipped on a pair of Howard's moccasins,and went down to the river through an ambient that had the sparkle andexhilaration of champagne. The mountain air was still finely crisp withthe frost, in spite of the sun warmth that was beginning to mellow it.Flinging aside the Indian blanket he had caught up before leaving thecabin, he stood for an instant on the bank, a human being with thephysical poise, compactness, and lithe-muscled smoothness of a tiger.

  Even as he plunged a rifle cracked. While he dived through the air,before the shock of the icy water tingled through him, he was planninghis escape. The opposite bank rose ten feet above the stream. He keptunder the water until he came close to this, then swam swiftly along itwith only his head showing, so as to keep him out of sight as much aspossible.

  Half a stone's throw farther the bank fell again to the water's edge,the river having broadened and grown shallow, as mountain creeks do.The ranger ran, stooping, along the bank, till it afforded him no moreprotection, then dashed across the stony-bottomed stream to the shelterof the thick aspens beyond.

  Just as he expected, a shot rang from far up the mountainside. Inanother instant he was safe in the foliage of the young aspens.

  In the sheer exhilaration of his escape he laughed aloud.

  "Last show to score gone, Mr. Struve. I figured it just right. He waitedtoo long for his first shot. Then the bank hid me. He wasn't expectingto see me away down the stream, so he hadn't time to sight his secondone."

  Steve wound his way in and out among the aspens, working toward the tailof them, which ran up the hill a little way and dropped down almost tothe back door of the cabin. Upon this he was presently pounding.

  Howard let him in. He had a revolver in his hand, the first weapon hecould snatch up.

  "You durned old idiot! It's a wonder you ain't dead three ways forSunday," he shouted joyfully at sight of him. "Ain't I told you 'steentimes to do what bathin' you got to do, right here in the shack?"

  The Texan laughed again. Naked as that of Father Adam, his splendid bodywas glowing with the bath and the exercise.

  "He's ce'tainly the worst chump ever, Alec. Had me in sight all theway down to the creek, but waited till I wasn't moving. Reckon he wasnervous. Anyhow, he waited just one-tenth of a second too late. Shotjust as I leaned forward for my dive. He gave me a free hair-cutthough."

  A swath showed where the bullet had mowed a furrow of hair so close thatin one place it had slightly torn the scalp.

  "He shot again, didn't he?"

  "Yep. I swam along the far bank, so that he couldn't get at me, andcrossed into the aspens. He got another chance as I was crossing, but hehad to take it on the fly, and missed."

  The cattleman surveyed the hillside cautiously through the front window."I reckon he's pulled his freight, most likely. But we'll stay coopedfor a while, on the chance. You're the luckiest cuss I ever did see.More lives than a cat."

  Howard laid his revolver down within reach, and proceeded to lighta fire in the stove, from which rose presently the pleasant odors ofaromatic coffee and fried ham and eggs.

  "Come and get it, Steve," said Howard, by way of announcing breakfast."No, you don't. I'll take the window seat, and at that we'll have thecurtain drawn."

  They were just finishing breakfast when Siegfried cantered up.

  "You bane ready, Steve?" he called in.

  Howard appeared in the doorway. "Say, Sig, go down to the corral andsaddle up Teddy for Steve, will you? Some of his friends have beenpotshotting at him again. No damage done, except to my feelings, butthere's nothing like being careful."

  Siegfried's face darkened. "Ay bane like for know who it vas?"

  Howard laughed. "Now, if you'll tell Steve that he'll give you as muchas six bits, Sig. He's got notions, but they ain't worth any more thanyours or mine. Say, where you boys going to-day? I've a notion to goalong."

  "Oh, just out for a little pasear," Steve answered casually. "Thoughtyou were going to work on your south fence to-day."

  "Well, I reckon I better. It sure needs fixing. You lads take good careof yourselves. I don't need to tell you not to pass anywhere near therun, Sig," he grinned, with the manner of one giving a superfluouswarning.

  Fraser looked at Siegfried, with a smile in his eyes. "No, we'll notpass the run to-day, Alec."

  A quarter of an hour later they were in the saddle and away. Siegfrieddid not lead his friend directly up the canyon that opened into JackRabbit Run, but across the hills to a pass, which had to be taken onfoot. They left the horses picketed on a grassy slope, and climbed thefaint trail that went steeply up the bowlder-strewn mountain.

  The ascent was so steep that the last bit had to be done on allfours. It was a rock face, though by no means an impossible one, sinceprojecting ledges and knobs offered a foothold all the way. From thesummit, the trail edged its way down so precipitously that twice fallenpines had to be used as ladders for the descent.

  As soon as they were off the rocks, the big blonde gave the signal forsilence. "Ay bane t'ink we might meet up weeth some one," he whispered,and urged Steve to follow him as closely as possible.

  It was half an hour later that Sig pointed out a small clearing ahead ofthem. "Cabin's right oop on the edge of the aspens. See it?"

  The ranger nodded assent.

  "Ay bane go down first an' see how t'ings look."

  When the Norwegian entered the cabin, he saw two men seated at a table,playing seven up. The one facing him was Tommie, the cook; the other wasan awkward heavy-set fellow, whom he knew for the man he wanted, evenbefore the scarred, villainous face was twisted toward him.

  Struve leaped instantly to his feet, overturning his chair in his haste.He had not met the big Norseman since the night he had attempted to hangFraser.

  "Ay bane not shoot yuh now," Siegfried told him.

  "Right sure of that, are you?" the convict snarled, his hand on hisweapon. "If you've got any doubts, now's the time to air them, and we'llsettle this thing right now."

  "Ay bane not shoot, Ay tell you."

  Tommie, who had ducked beneath the table at the prospect of trouble, nowcautiously emerged.

  "I ain't lost any pills from either of your guns, gents," he explained,with a face so laughably and frankly frightened that both of the otherssmiled.

  "Have a drink, Siegfried," suggested Struve, by way of sealing thetreaty. "Tommie, get out that bottle."

  "Ay bane t'ink Ay look to my horse first," the Norwegian answered, andimmediately left by way of the back door not three minutes before JedBriscoe entered by the front one.

  Jed shut the door behind him and looked at the convict.

  "Well?" he demanded.

  Struve faced him sullenly, without answering.

  "Tommie, vamos," hinted Briscoe gently, and as soon as the cook haddisappeared, he repeated his monosyllable: "Well?"

  "It didn't come off," muttered the other sulkily.

  "Just what I expected. Why not?"

  Struve broke into a string of furious oaths. "Because I missedhim--missed him twice, when he was standing there naked before me. Hewas coming down to the creek to take a bath, and I waited till he wasclose. I had a sure bead on him, and he dived just as I fired. I gotanother chance, when he was running across, farther down, and, bythunder, I missed again."

  Jed laughed, and th
e sound of it was sinister.

  "Couldn't hit the side of a house, could you? You're nothing but a cheapskate, a tin-horn gambler, run down at the heels. All right. I'm throughwith you. Lieutenant Fraser, from Texas, can come along and collectwhenever he likes. I'll not protect a false alarm like you any longer."

  Struve looked at him, as a cornered wolf might have done. "What will youdo?"

  "I'll give you up to him. I'll tell him to come in and get you. I'llshow him the way in, you white-livered cur!" bullied the cattleman,giving way to one of his rages.

  "You'd better not," snarled the convict. "Not if you want to live."

  As they stood facing each other in a panting fury the door opened, tolet in Siegfried and the ranger.

  Jed's rage against Struve died on the spot. He saw his enemy, theranger, before him, and leaped to the conclusion that he had cometo this hidden retreat to run him down for the Squaw Creek murders.Instantly, his hand swept to the hilt of his revolver.

  That motion sealed his doom. For Struve knew that Siegfried had broughtthe ranger to capture him, and suspected in the same flash that Briscoewas in on the betrayal. Had not the man as good as told him so, notthirty seconds before? He supposed that Jed was drawing to kill or coverhim, and, like a flash of lightning, unscabbarded and fired.

  "You infernal Judas, I'll get you anyhow," he cried.

  Jed dropped his weapon, and reeled back against the wall, where he hungfor a moment, while the convict pumped a second and a third bullet intohis body. Briscoe was dead before Fraser could leap forward and throwhis arms round the man who had killed him.

  Between them, they flung Struve to the ground, and disarmed him. Theconvict's head had struck as he went down, and it was not for somelittle time that he recovered fully from his daze. When he did his handswere tied behind him.

  "I didn't go for to kill him," he whimpered, now thoroughly frightenedat what he had done. "You both saw it, gentlemen. You did, lieutenant.So did you, Sig. It was self-defense. He drew on me. I didn't go to doit."

  Fraser was examining the dead man's wounds. He looked up, and said tohis friend: "Nothing to do for him, Sig. He's gone."

  "I tell you, I didn't mean to do it," pleaded Struve. "Why, lieutenant,that man has been trying to get me to ambush you for weeks. I'll swearit." The convict was in a panic of terror, ready to curry favor with theman whom he held his deadliest enemy. "Yes, lieutenant, ever since youcame here. He's been egging me on to kill you."

  "And you tried it three times?"

  "No, sir." He pointed vindictively at the dead man, lying face up on thefloor. "It was him that ambushed you this morning. I hadn't a thing todo with it."

  "Don't lie, you coward."

  They carried the body to the next room and put it on a bed. Tommie wasdispatched on a fast horse for help.

  Late in the afternoon he brought back with him Doctor Lee, and half anhour after sunset Yorky and Slim galloped up. They were for settlingthe matter out of hand by stringing the convict Struve up to the nearestpine, but they found the ranger so very much on the spot that theyreconsidered.

  "He's my prisoner, gentlemen. I came in here and took him--that is, withthe help of my friend Siegfried. I reckon if you mill it over a spell,you'll find you don't want him half as bad as we do," he said mildly.

  "What's the matter with all of us going in on this thing, lieutenant?"proposed Yorky.

  "I never did see such a fellow for necktie parties as you are, Yorky.Not three weeks ago, you was invitin' me to be chief mourner at oneof your little affairs, and your friend Johnson was to be master ofceremonies. Now you've got the parts reversed. No, I reckon we'll haveto disappoint you this trip."

  "What are you going to do with him?" asked Yorky, with plaindissatisfaction.

  "I'm going to take him down to Gimlet Butte. Arizona and Wyoming andTexas will have to scrap it out for him there."

  "When, you get him there," Yorky said significantly.

  "Yes, when I get him there," answered the Texan blandly, carefullyoblivious of the other's implication.

  The moon was beginning to show itself over a hill before the Texan andSiegfried took the road with their captive. Fraser had carelessly letdrop a remark to the effect that they would spend the night at theDillon ranch.

  His watch showed eleven o'clock before they reached the ranch, but hepushed on without turning in and did not stop until they came to theHoward place.

  They roused Alec from sleep, and he cooked them a post-midnight supper,after which he saddled his cow pony, buckled on his belt, and took downhis old rifle from the rack.

  "I'll jog along with you lads and see the fun," he said.

  Their prisoner had not eaten. The best he could do was to gulp down somecoffee, for he was in a nervous chill of apprehension. Every gust ofwind seemed to carry to him the patter of pursuit. The hooting of an owlsent a tremor through him.

  "Don't you reckon we had better hurry?" he had asked with dry lips morethan once, while the others were eating.

  He asked it again as they were setting off.

  Howard looked him over with rising disgust, without answering.Presently, he remarked, apropos of nothing: "Are all your Texas wolvescoyotes, Steve?"

  He would have liked to know at least that it was a man whose life he wasprotecting, even though the fellow was also a villain. But this crumb ofsatisfaction was denied him.

 
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