Part II. The Girl of Lost Valley
Chapter II. A Compact
 

After the jailer had brought his breakfast, Fraser was honored by a visit from the sheriff, a big, rawboned Westerner, with the creases of fifty outdoor years stamped on his brown, leathery face.

He greeted his prisoner pleasantly enough, and sat down on the bed.

"Treating you right, are they?" he asked, glancing around. "Breakfast up to the mark?"

"I've got no kick coming, thank you," said Fraser.

"Good!"

The sheriff relapsed into sombre silence. There was a troubled look in the keen eyes that the Texan did not understand. Fraser waited for the officer to develop the object of his visit, and it was set down to his credit. A weaker man would have rushed at once into excuses and explanations. But in the prisoner's quiet, steely eyes, in the close-shut mouth and salient jaw, in the set of his well-knit figure, Sheriff Brandt found small room for weakness. Whoever he was, this man was one who could hold his own in the strenuous game of life.

"My friend," said the sheriff abruptly, "you and I are up against it. There is going to be trouble in town to-night."

The level, gray eyes looked questioningly at the sheriff.

"You butted into grief a-plenty when you lined up with the cattlemen in this sheep war. Who do you ride for?"

"I'm not riding for anybody," responded Fraser. "I just arrived from Texas. Didn't even know there was a feud on."

Brandt laughed incredulously. "That will sound good to a jury, if your case ever comes to that stage. How do you expect to explain Billy Faulkner's death?"

"Is there any proof I killed him?"

"Some. You were recognized by two men last night while you were trying to escape. You carried a rifle that uses the same weight bullet as the one we dug out of Billy. When you attacked Tom Peake you dropped that rifle, and in your getaway hadn't time to pick it up again. That is evidence enough for a Wyoming jury, in the present state of public opinion."

"What do you mean by 'in the present state of public opinion'?"

"I mean that this whole country is pretty nearly solid against the Cedar Mountain cattlemen, since they killed Campeau and Jennings in that raid on their camp. You know what I mean as well as I do."

Fraser did not argue the point. He remembered now having seen an account of the Squaw Creek raid on a sheep camp, ending in a battle that had resulted in the death of two men and the wounding of three others. He had been sitting in a hotel at San Antonio, Texas, when he had read the story over his after-dinner cigar. The item had not seemed even remotely connected with himself. Now he was in prison at Gimlet Butte, charged with murder, and unless he was very much mistaken the sheriff was hinting at a lynching. The Squaw Creek raid had come very near to him, for he knew the fight he had interrupted last night had grown out of it,

"What do you mean by trouble to-night?" he asked, in an even, conversational tone.

The sheriff looked directly at him. "You're a man, I reckon. That calls for the truth. Men are riding up and down this country to-day, stirring up sentiment against your outfit. To-night the people will gather in town, and the jail will be attacked."

"And you?"

"I'll uphold the law as long as I can."

Fraser nodded. He knew Brandt spoke the simple truth. What he had sworn to do he would do to the best of his ability. But the Texan knew, too, that the ramshackle jail would be torn to pieces and the sheriff overpowered.

From his coat pocket he drew a letter, and presented it to the other. "I didn't expect to give this to you under these circumstances, Mr. Brandt, but I'd like you to know that I'm on the level when I say I don't know any of the Squaw Creek cattlemen and have never ridden for any outfit in this State."

Brandt tore open the letter, and glanced hurriedly through it. "Why, it's from old Sam Slauson! We used to ride herd together when we were boys." And he real aloud:

"Introducing Steve Fraser, lieutenant in the Texas Rangers."

He glanced up quickly. "You're not the Fraser that ran down Chacon and his gang of murderers?"

"Yes, I was on that job."

Brandt shook hands heartily. "They say it was a dandy piece of work. I read that story in a magazine. You delivered the goods proper."

The ranger was embarrassed. "Oh, it wasn't much of a job. The man that wrote it put in the fancy touches, to make his story sell, I expect."

"Yes, he did! I know all about that!" the sheriff derided. "I've got to get you out of this hole somehow. Do you mind if I send for Hilliard, the prosecuting attorney? He's a bright young fellow, loaded to the guards with ideas. What I want is to get at a legal way of fixing this thing up, you understand. I'll call him up on the phone, and have him run over."

Hilliard was shortly on the spot-- a short, fat little fellow with eyeglasses. He did not at first show any enthusiasm in the prisoner's behalf.

"I don't doubt for a moment that you are the man this letter says you are, Mr. Fraser," he said suavely. "But facts are stubborn things. You were seen carrying the gun that killed Faulkner. We can't get away from that just because you happen to have a letter of introduction to Mr. Brandt."

"I don't want to get away from it," retorted. Fraser. "I have explained how I got into the fight. A man doesn't stand back and see two people, and one of them a girl, slaughtered by seven or eight."

The lawyer's fat forefinger sawed the air. "That's how you put it. Mind, I don't for a moment say it isn't the right way. But what the public wants is proof. Can you give evidence to show that Faulkner and his friends attacked Dillon and his daughter? Have you even got them on hand here to support your statement? Have you got a grain of evidence, apart from your bare word?"

"That letter shows--"

"It shows nothing. You might have written it yourself last night. Anyhow, a letter of introduction isn't quite an excuse for murder."

"It wasn't murder."

"That's what you say. I'll be glad to have you prove it."

"They followed Dillon-- if that is his name-- out of town."

"They put it that they were on their way home, when they were attacked."

"By an old man and his daughter," the Texan added significantly.

"There again we have only your statement for it. Half a dozen men had been in town during the day from the Cedar Mountain district. These men were witnesses in the suit that rose over a sheep raid. They may all have been on the spot, to ambush Faulkner's crowd."

Brandt broke in: "Are you personally convinced that this gentleman is Lieutenant Fraser of the Rangers?"

"Personally, I am of opinion that he is, but--"

"Hold your horses, Dave. Believing that, do you think that we ought to leave him here to be lynched to-night by Peake's outfit?"

"That isn't my responsibility, but speaking merely as a private citizen, I should say, No."

"What would you do with him then?"

"Why not take him up to your house?"

"Wouldn't be safe a minute, or in any other house in town."

"Then get out of town with him."

"It can't be done. I'm watched."

Hilliard shrugged.

The ranger's keen eyes went from one to another. He saw that what the lawyer needed was some personal interest to convert him into a partisan. From his pocket he drew another letter and some papers.

"If you doubt that I am Lieutenant Fraser you can wire my captain at Dallas. This is a letter of congratulation to me from the Governor of Texas for my work in the Chacon case. Here's my railroad ticket, and my lodge receipt. You gentlemen are the officers in charge. I hold you personally responsible for my safety-- for the safety of a man whose name, by chance, is now known all over this country."

This was a new phase of the situation, and it went home to the lawyer's mind at once. He had been brought into the case willy nilly, and he would be blamed for anything that happened to this young Texan, whose deeds had recently been exploited broadcast in the papers. He stood for an instant in frowning thought, and as he did so a clause in the letter from the Governor of Texas caught and held his eye.

which I regard as the ablest, most daring, and, at the same time, the most difficult and most successful piece of secret service that has come to my knowledge....

Suddenly, Hilliard saw the way out-- a way that appealed to him none the less because it would also serve his own ambitions.

"Neither you nor I have any right to help this gentleman to escape, sheriff. The law is plain. He is charged with murder. We haven't any right to let our private sympathies run away with us. But there is one thing we can do."

"What is that?" the sheriff asked.

"Let him earn his freedom."

"Earn it! How?"

"By serving the State in this very matter of the Squaw Creek raid. As prosecuting attorney, it is in my discretion to accept the service of an accomplice to a crime in fixing the guilt upon the principals. Before the law, Lieutenant Fraser stands accused of complicity. We believe him not guilty, but that does not affect the situation. Let him go up into the Cedar Mountain country and find out the guilty parties in the Squaw Creek raid."

"And admit my guilt by compromising with you?" the Texan scoffed.

"Not at all. You need not go publicly. In point of fact, you couldn't get out of town alive if it were known. No, we'll arrange to let you break jail on condition that you go up into the Lost Canyon district, and run down the murderers of Campeau and Jennings, That gives us an excuse for letting you go. You see the point-- don't you?"

The Texan grinned. "That isn't quite the point, is it?" he drawled. "If I should be successful, you will achieve a reputation, without any cost to yourself. That's worth mentioning,"

Hilliard showed a momentary embarrassment.

"That's incidental. Besides, it will help your reputation more than mine "

Brandt got busy at once with the details of the escape. "We'll loosen up the mortar round the bars in the south room. They are so rickety anyhow I haven't kept any prisoners there for years. After you have squeezed through you will find a horse saddled in the draw, back here. You'll want a gun of course."

"Always providing Lieutenant Fraser consents to the arrangement," the lawyer added smoothly.

"Oh, I'll consent," laughed Fraser wryly. "I have no option. Of course, if I win I get the reward-- whatever it is."

"Oh, of course."

"Then I'm at your service, gentlemen, to escape whenever you say the word."

"The best time would be right after lunch. That would give you five hours before Nichols was in here again," the sheriff suggested.

"Suppose you draw a map, showing the route I'm to follow to reach Cedar Mountain. I reckon I had better not trouble folks to ask them the way." And the Texan grinned.

"That's right. I'll fix you up, and tell you later just where you'll find the horse," Brandt answered.

"You're an officer yourself, lieutenant," said the lawyer. "You know just how much evidence it takes to convict. Well, that's just how much we want. If you have to communicate with us, address 'T. L. Meredith, Box 117.' Better send your letter in cipher. Here's a little code I worked out that we sometimes use. Well, so-long. Good hunting, lieutenant."

Fraser nodded farewell, but did not offer to shake hands.

Brandt lingered for an instant. "Don't make any mistake, Fraser, about this job you've bit off. It's a big one, and don't you forget it. People are sore on me because I have fallen down on it. I can't help it. I just can't get the evidence. If you tackle it, you'll be in danger from start to finish. There are some bad men in this country, and the worst of them are lying low in Lost Valley."

The ranger smiled amiably. "Where is this Lost Valley?"

"Somewhere up in the Cedar Mountain district. I've never been there. Few men have, for it is not easy to find; and even if it were strangers are not invited."

"Well, I'll have to invite myself."

"That's all right. But remember this. There are men up there who would drill holes in a dying man. I guess Lost Valley is the country God forgot."

"Sounds right interesting."

"You'll find it all that, and don't forget that if they find out what you are doing there, it will be God help Steve Fraser!"

The ranger's eyes gleamed. "I'll try to remember it."