Part II. The Girl of Lost Valley
Chapter I. In the Fire Zone
 

"Say, you Teddy hawss, I'm plumb fed up with sagebrush and scenery. I kinder yearn for co'n bread and ham. I sure would give six bits for a drink of real wet water. Yore sentiments are similar, I reckon, Teddy."

The Texan patted the neck of his cow pony, which reached round playfully and pretended to nip his leg. They understood each other, and were now making the best of a very unpleasant situation. Since morning they had been lost on the desert. The heat of midday had found them plowing over sandy wastes. The declining sun had left them among the foothills, wandering from one to another, in the vain hope that each summit might show the silvery gleam of a windmill, or even that outpost of civilization, the barb-wire fence. And now the stars looked down indifferently, myriads of them, upon the travelers still plodding wearily through a land magically transformed by moonlight to a silvery loveliness that blotted out all the garish details of day.

The Texan drew rein. "We all been discovering that Wyoming is a powerful big state. Going to feed me a cigarette, Teddy. Too bad a hawss cayn't smoke his troubles away," he drawled, and proceeded to roll a cigarette, lighting it with one sweeping motion of his arm, that passed down the leg of his chaps and ended in the upward curve at his lips.

The flame had not yet died, when faintly through the illimitable velvet night there drifted to him a sound.

"Did you hear that, pardner?" the man demanded softly, listening intently for a repetition of it.

It came presently, from away over to the left, and, after it, what might have been taken for the popping of a distant bunch of firecrackers.

"Celebrating the Fourth some premature, looks like. What? Think not, Teddy! Some one getting shot up? Sho! You are romancin', old hawss."

Nevertheless he swung the pony round and started rapidly in the direction of the shots. From time to time there came a renewal of them, though the intervals grew longer and the explosions were now individual ones. He took the precaution to draw his revolver from the holster and to examine it carefully.

"Nothing like being sure. It's a heap better than being sorry afterward," he explained to the cow pony.

For the first time in twelve hours, he struck a road. Following this as it wound up to the summit of a hill, he discovered that the area of disturbance was in the valley below. For, as he began his descent, there was a flash from a clump of cotton-woods almost at his feet.

"Did yo' git him?" a voice demanded anxiously.

"Don't know, dad," the answer came, young, warm, and tremulous.

"Hello! There's a kid there," the Texan decided. Aloud, he asked quietly: "What's the row, gentlemen?"

One of the figures whirled-- it was the boyish one, crouched behind a dead horse-- and fired at him.

"Hold on, sonny! I'm a stranger. Don't make any more mistakes like that."

"Who are you?"

"Steve Fraser they call me. I just arrived from Texas. Wait a jiff, and I'll come down and explain."

He stayed for no permission, but swung from the saddle, trailed the reins, and started down the slope. He could hear a low-voiced colloquy between the two dark figures, and one of them called roughly:

"Hands up, friend! We'll take no chances on yo'."

The Texan's hands went up promptly, just as a bullet flattened itself against a rock behind him. It had been fired from the bank of the dry wash, some hundred and fifty yards away.

"That's no fair! Both sides oughtn't to plug at me," he protested, grinning.

The darkness which blurred detail melted as Fraser approached, and the moonlight showed him a tall, lank, unshaven old mountaineer, standing behind a horse, his shotgun thrown across the saddle.

"That's near enough, Mr. Fraser from Texas," said the old man, in a slow voice that carried the Southern intonation. "This old gun is loaded with buckshot, and she scatters like hell. Speak yore little piece. How came yo' here, right now?"

"I got lost in the Wind River bad lands this mo'ning, and I been playing hide and go seek with myself ever since."

"Where yo' haided for?"

"Gimlet Butte."

"Huh! That's right funny, too."

"Why?"

"Because all yo' got to do to reach the butte is to follow this road and yore nose for about three miles."

A bullet flung up a spurt of sand beside the horse.

The young fellow behind the dead horse broke in, with impatient alarm: "He's all right, dad. Can't you tell by his way of talking that he's from the South? Make him lie down."

Something sweet and vibrant in the voice lingered afterward in the Texan's mind almost like a caress, but at the time he was too busy to think of this. He dropped behind a cottonwood, and drew his revolver.

"How many of them are there?" he asked of the lad, in a whisper.

"About six, I think. I'm sorry I shot at you."

"What's the row?"

"They followed us out of Gimlet Butte. They've been drinking. Isn't that some one climbing up the side of the ridge?"

"I believe it is. Let me have your rifle, kid."

"What for?" The youngster took careful aim, and fired.

A scream from the sagebrush-- just one, and then no more.

"Bully for you', Arlie," the old man said.

None of them spoke for some minutes, then Fraser heard a sob-- a stifled one, but unmistakable none the less.

"Don't be afraid, kid. We'll stand 'em off," the Texan encouraged.

"I ain't afraid, but I-- I---- Oh, God, I've killed a man."

The Texan stared at him, where he lay in the heavy shadows, shaken with his remorse. "Holy smoke! Wasn't he aiming to kill you? He likely isn't dead, anyhow. You got real troubles to worry about, without making up any."

He could see the youngster shaking with the horror of it, and could hear the staccato sobs forcing themselves through the closed teeth. Something about it, some touch of pathos he could not account for, moved his not very accessible heart. After all, he was a slim little kid to be engaged in such a desperate encounter Fraser remembered his own boyhood and the first time he had ever seen bloodshed, and, recalling it, he slipped across in the darkness and laid an arm across the slight shoulder.

"Don't you worry, kid. It's all right. You didn't mean--"

He broke off in swift, unspeakable amazement. His eye traveled up the slender figure from the telltale skirt. This was no boy at all, but a girl. As he took in the mass of blue-black hair and the soft but clean-cut modeling from ear to chin, his hand fell from her shoulder. What an idiot he had been not to know from the first that such a voice could have come only from a woman! He had been deceived by the darkness and by the slouch hat she wore. He wanted to laugh in sardonic scorn of his perception.

But on the heel of that came a realization of her danger. He must get her out of there at once, for he knew that the enemy must be circling round, to take them on the flank too. It was not a question of whether they could hold off the attackers. They might do that, and yet she might be killed while they were doing it. A man used to coping with emergencies, his brain now swiftly worked out a way of escape.

"Yore father and I will take care of these coyotes. You slip along those shadows up the hill to where my Teddy hawss is, and burn the wind out of here," he told her.

"I'll not leave dad," she said quickly.

The old mountaineer behind the horse laughed apologetically. "I been trying to git her to go, but she won't stir. With the pinto daid, o' course we couldn't both make it."

"That's plumb foolishness," the Texan commented irritably.

"Mebbe," admitted the girl; "but I reckon I'll stay long as dad does."

"No use being pigheaded about it."

Her dark eyes flashed. "Is this your say-so, Mr. Whatever-your-name-is?" she asked sharply, less because she resented what he said than because she was strung to a wire edge.

His troubled gaze took in again her slim girlishness. The frequency of danger had made him proof against fear for himself, but just now he was very much afraid for her. Hard man as he was, he had the Southerner's instinctive chivalry toward woman.

"You better go, Arlie," her father counseled weakly.

"Well, I won't," she retorted emphatically.

The old man looked whimsically at the Texan. "Yo' see yo'self how it is, stranger."

Fraser saw, and the girl's stanchness stirred his admiration even while it irritated him. He made his decision immediately.

"All right. Both of you go."

"But we have only one horse," the girl objected. "They would catch us."

"Take my Teddy."

"And leave you here?" The dark eyes were full on him again, this time in a wide-open surprise.

"Oh, I'll get out once you're gone. No trouble about that."

"How?"

"We couldn't light out, and leave yo' here," the father interrupted.

"Of course we couldn't," the girl added quickly. "It isn't your quarrel, anyhow."

"What good can you do staying here?" argued Fraser. "They want you, not me. With you gone, I'll slip away or come to terms with them. They haven't a thing against me."

"That's right," agreed the older man, rubbing his stubbly beard with his hand. "That's sho'ly right."

"But they might get you before they understood," Arlie urged.

"Oh, I'll keep under cover, and when it's time, I'll sing out and let them know. Better leave me that rifle, though." He went right on, taking it for granted that she had consented to go: "Slip through those shadows up that draw. You'll have no trouble with Teddy. Whistle when you're ready, and your father will make a break up the hill on his hawss. So-long. See you later some time, mebbe."

She went reluctantly, not convinced, but overborne by the quality of cheerful compulsion that lay in him. He was not a large man, though the pack and symmetry of his muscles promised unusual strength. But the close-gripped jaw, the cool serenity of the gray eyes that looked without excitement upon whatever they saw, the perfect poise of his carriage-- all contributed to a personality plainly that of a leader of men.

It was scarce a minute later that the whistle came from the hilltop. The mountaineer instantly swung to the saddle and set his pony to a canter up the draw. Fraser could see him join his daughter in the dim light, for the moon had momentarily gone behind a cloud, but almost at once the darkness swallowed them.

Some one in the sagebrush called to a companion, and the Texan knew that the attackers had heard the sound of the galloping horses. Without waiting an instant, he fired twice in rapid succession.

"That'll hold them for a minute or two," he told himself. "They won't understand it, and they'll get together and have a powwow."

He crouched behind the dead horse, his gaze sweeping the wash, the sagebrush, and the distant group of cottonwoods from which he had seen a shot fired. Though he lay absolutely still, without the least visible excitement, he was alert and tense to the finger tips. Not the slightest sound, not the smallest motion of the moonlit underbrush, escaped his unwavering scrutiny.

The problem before him was to hold the attackers long enough for Arlie and her father to make their escape, without killing any of them or getting killed himself. He knew that, once out of the immediate vicinity, the fugitives would leave the road and take to some of the canyons that ran from the foothills into the mountains. If he could secure them a start of fifteen minutes that ought to be enough.

A voice from the wash presently hailed him:

"See here! We're going to take you back with us, old man. That's a cinch. We want you for that Squaw Creek raid, and we're going to have you. You done enough damage. Better surrender peaceable, and we'll promise to take you back to jail. What say?"

"Gimme five minutes to think it over," demanded the Texan.

"All right, five minutes. But you want to remember that it's all off with you if you don't give up. Billy Faulkner's dead, and we'll sure come a-shooting."

Fraser waited till his five minutes was nearly up, then plunged across the road into the sagebrush growing thick there. A shot or two rang out, without stopping him. Suddenly a man rose out of the sage in front of him, a revolver in his hand.

For a fraction of a second, the two men faced each other before either spoke.

"Who are you?"

Fraser's answer was to dive for the man's knees, just as a football tackle does. They went down together, but it was the Texan got up first. A second man was running toward him.

"Hands up, there!" the newcomer ordered.

Fraser's hand went up, but with his forty-five in it. The man pitched forward into the sage. The Southerner twisted forward again, slid down into the dry creek, and ran along its winding bed for a hundred yards. Then he left it, cutting back toward the spot where he had lain behind the dead horse. Hiding in the sage, he heard the pursuit pouring down the creek, waited till it was past, and quickly recrossed the road. Here, among the cow-backed hills, he knew he was as safe as a needle in a haystack.

"I had to get that anxious guy, but it might have been a whole lot worse. I only plugged his laig for him," he reflected comfortably. "Wonder why they wanted to collect the old man's scalp, anyhow? The little girl sure was game. Just like a woman, though, the way she broke down because she hit that fellow."

Within five minutes he was lost again among the thousand hills that rose like waves of the sea, one after another. It was not till nearly morning that he again struck a road.

He was halted abruptly by a crisp command from behind a bowlder:

"Up with your hands-- quick!"

"Who are you, my friend?" the Texan asked mildly.

"Deputy sheriff," was the prompt response. "Now, reach for the sky, and prompt, too."

"Just as you say. You've ce'tainly got the crawl on me."

The deputy disarmed his captive, and drove him into town before him. When morning dawned, Fraser found himself behind the bars. He was arrested for the murder of Faulkner.