A Texas Ranger by William MacLeod Raine
Part II. The Girl of Lost Valley
Chapter III. Into Lost Valley
It was one-twenty when Fraser slipped the iron bar from the masonry into which it had been fixed and began to lower himself from the window. The back of the jail faced on the bank of a creek; and into the aspens, which ran along it at this point in a little grove, the fugitive pushed his way. He descended to the creek edge and crossed the mountain stream on bowlders which filled its bed. From here he followed the trail for a hundred yards that led up the little river. On the way he passed a boy fishing and nodded a greeting to him.
"What time is it, mister?" the youngster asked.
A glance at his watch showed the Texan that it was one-twenty-five.
"The fish have quit biting. Blame it all, I'm going home. Say, mister, Jimmie Spence says they're going to lynch that fellow who killed Billy Faulkner-- going to hang him to-night, Jimmie says. Do you reckon they will?"
"No, I reckon not."
"Tha's what I told him, but Jimmie says he heard Tom Peake say so. Jimmie says this town will be full o' folks by night."
Without waiting to hear any more of Jimmie's prophecies, Fraser followed the trail till it reached a waterfall Brandt bad mentioned, then struck sharply to the right. In a little bunch of scrub oaks he found a saddled horse tied to a sapling. His instructions were to cross the road, which ran parallel with the stream, and follow the gulch that led to the river. Half an hour's travel brought him to another road. Into this he turned, and followed it.
In a desperate hurry though he was, Steve dared not show it. He held his piebald broncho to the ambling trot a cowpony naturally drops into. From his coat pocket he flashed a mouthharp for use in emergency.
Presently he met three men riding into town. They nodded at him, in the friendly, casual way of the outdoors West. The gait of the pony was a leisurely walk, and its rider was industriously executing, "I Met My Love In the Alamo."
"Going the wrong way, aren't you?" one of the three suggested.
"Don't you worry, I'll be there when y'u hang that guy they caught last night," he told them with a grin.
From time to time he met others. All travel seemed to be headed townward. There was excitement in the air. In the clear atmosphere voices carried a long way, and all the conversation that came to him was on the subjects of the war for the range, the battle of the previous evening, and the lynching scheduled to take place in a few hours. He realized that he had escaped none too soon, for it was certain that as the crowd in town multiplied, they would set a watch on the jail to prevent Brandt from slipping out with his prisoner.
About four miles from town he cut the telephone wires, for he knew that as soon as his escape became known to the jailer, the sheriff would be notified, and he would telephone in every direction the escape of his prisoner, just the same as if there had been no arrangement between them. It was certain, too, that all the roads leading from Gimlet Butte would be followed and patrolled immediately. For which reason he left the road after cutting the wires, and took to the hill trail marked out for him in the map furnished by Brandt.
By night, he was far up in the foothills. Close to a running stream, he camped in a little, grassy park, where his pony could find forage. Brandt had stuffed his saddlebags with food, and had tied behind a sack, with a feed or two of oats for his horse. Fraser had ridden the range too many years to risk lighting a fire, even though he had put thirty-five miles between him and Gimlet Butte. The night was chill, as it always is in that altitude, but he rolled up in his blanket, got what sleep he could, and was off again by daybreak.
Before noon he was high in the mountain passes, from which he could sometimes look down into the green parks where nested the little ranches of small cattlemen. He knew now that he was beyond the danger of the first hurried pursuit, and that it was more than likely that any of these mountaineers would hide him rather than give him up. Nevertheless, he had no immediate intention of putting them to the test.
The second night came down on him far up on Dutchman Creek, in the Cedar Mountain district. He made a bed, where his horse found a meal, in a haystack of a small ranch, the buildings of which were strung along the creek. He was weary, and he slept deep. When he awakened next morning, it was to hear the sound of men's voices. They drifted to him from the road in front of the house.
Carefully he looked down from the top of his stack upon three horsemen talking to the bare-headed ranchman whom they had called out from his breakfast.
"No, I ain't seen a thing of him. Shot Billy Faulkner, you say? What in time for?" the rancher was innocently asking.
"You know what for, Hank Speed," the leader of the posse made sullen answer. "Well, boys, we better be pushing on, I expect."
Fraser breathed freer when they rode out of sight. He had overslept, and had had a narrow shave; for his pony was grazing in the alfalfa field within a hundred yards of them at that moment. No sooner had the posse gone than Hank Speed stepped across the field without an instant's hesitation and looked the animal over, after which he returned to the house and came out again with a rifle in his hands.
The ranger slid down the farther side of the stack and slipped his revolver from its holster. He watched the ranchman make a tour of the out-buildings very carefully and cautiously, then make a circuit of the haystack at a safe distance. Soon the rancher caught sight of the man crouching against it.
"Oh, you're there, are you? Put up that gun. I ain't going to do you any harm."
"What's the matter with you putting yours up first?" asked the Texan amiably.
"I tell you I ain't going to hurt you. Soon as I stepped out of the house I seen your horse. All I had to do was to say so, and they would have had you slick."
"What did you get your gun for, then?"
"I ain't taking any chances till folks' intentions has been declared. You might have let drive at me before I got a show to talk to you."
"All right. I'll trust you." Fraser dropped his revolver, and the other came across to him.
"Up in this country we ain't in mourning for Billy Faulkner. Old man Dillon told me what you done for him. I reckon we can find cover for you till things quiet down. My name is Speed."
"Call me Fraser."
"Glad to meet you, Mr. Fraser. I reckon we better move you back into the timber a bit. Deputy sheriffs are some thick around here right now. If you have to lie hid up in this country for a spell, we'll make an arrangement to have you taken care of."
"I'll have to lie hid. There's no doubt about that. I made my jail break just in time to keep from being invited as chief guest to a necktie party."
"Well, we'll put you where the whole United States Army couldn't find you."
They had been walking across the field and now crawled between the strands of fence wire.
"I left my saddle on top of the stack," the ranger explained.
"I'll take care of it. You better take cover on top of this ridge till I get word to Dillon you're here. My wife will fix you up some breakfast, and I'll bring it out."
"I've ce'tainly struck the good Samaritan," the Texan smiled.
"Sho! There ain't a man in the hills wouldn't do that much for a friend."
"I'm glad I have so many friends I never saw."
"Friends? The hills are full of them. You took a hand when old man Dillon and his girl were sure up against it. Cedar Mountain stands together these days. What you did for them was done for us all," Speed explained simply.
Fraser waited on the ridge till his host brought breakfast of bacon, biscuits, hard-boiled eggs, and coffee. While he ate, Speed sat down on a bowlder beside him and talked.
"I sent my boy with a note to Dillon. It's a good thirty miles from here, and the old man won't make it back till some time to-morrow. Course, you're welcome at the house, but I judge it wouldn't be best for you to be seen there. No knowing when some of Brandt's deputies might butt in with a warrant. You can slip down again after dark and burrow in the haystack. Eh? What think?"
"I'm in your hands, but I don't want to put you and your friends to so much trouble. Isn't there some mountain trail off the beaten road that I could take to Dillon's ranch, and so save him from the trip after me?"
Speed grinned. "Not in a thousand years, my friend. Dillon's ranch ain't to be found, except by them that know every pocket of these hills like their own back yard. I'll guarantee you couldn't find it in a month, unless you had a map locating it."
"Must be in that Lost Valley, which some folks say is a fairy tale," the ranger said carelessly, but with his eyes on the other.
The cattleman made no comment. It occurred to Fraser that his remark had stirred some suspicion of him. At least, it suggested caution.
"If you're through with your breakfast, I'll take back the dishes," Speed said dryly.
The day wore to sunset. After dark had fallen the Texan slipped through the alfalfa field again and bedded in the stack. Before the morning was more than gray he returned to the underbrush of the ridge. His breakfast finished, and Speed gone, he lay down on a great flat, sun-dappled rock, and looked into the unflecked blue sky. The season was spring, and the earth seemed fairly palpitating with young life. The low, tireless hum of insects went on all about him. The air was vocal with the notes of nesting birds. Away across the valley he could see a mountain slope, with snow gulches glowing pink in the dawn. Little checkerboard squares along the river showed irrigated patches. In the pleasant warmth he grew drowsy. His eyes closed, opened, closed again.
He was conscious of no sound that awakened him, yet he was aware of a presence that drew him from drowsiness to an alert attention. Instinctively, his hand crept to his scabbarded weapon.
"Don't shoot me," a voice implored with laughter-- a warm, vivid voice, that struck pleasantly on his memory.
The Texan turned lazily, and leaned on his elbow. She came smiling out of the brush, light as a roe, and with much of its slim, supple grace. Before, he had seen her veiled by night; the day disclosed her a dark, spirited young creature. The mass of blue-black hair coiled at the nape of the brown neck, the flash of dark eyes beneath straight, dark eyebrows, together with a certain deliberation of movement that was not languor, made it impossible to doubt that she was a Southerner by inheritance, if not by birth.
"I don't reckon I will," he greeted, smiling. "Down in Texas it ain't counted right good manners to shoot up young ladies."
"And in Wyoming you think it is."
"I judge by appearances, ma'am."
"Then you judge wrong. Those men did not know I was with dad that night. They thought I was another man. You see, they had just lost their suit for damages against dad and some more for the loss of six hundred sheep in a raid last year. They couldn't prove who did it." She flamed into a sudden passion of resentment. "I don't defend them any. They are a lot of coyotes, or they wouldn't have attacked two men, riding alone."
He ventured a rapier thrust. "How about the Squaw Creek raid? Don't your friends sometimes forget to fight fair, too?"
He had stamped the fire out of her in an instant. She drooped visibly. "Yes-- yes, they do," she faltered. "I don't defend them, either. Dad had nothing to do with that. He doesn't shoot in the back."
"I'm glad to hear it," he retorted cheerfully. "And I'm glad to hear that your friends the enemy didn't know it was a girl they were attacking. Fact is, I thought you were a boy myself when first I happened in and you fanned me with your welcome."
"I didn't know. I hadn't time to think. So I let fly. But I was so excited I likely missed you a mile."
He took off his felt hat and examined with interest a bullet hole through the rim. "If it was a mile, I'd hate to have you miss me a hundred yards," he commented, with a little ripple of laughter.
"I didn't! Did I? As near as that?" She caught her hands together in a sudden anguish for what might have been.
"Don't you care, ma'am. A miss is as good as a mile. It ain't the first time I've had my hat ventilated. I mentioned it, so you wouldn't get discouraged at your shooting. It's plenty good. Good enough to suit me. I wouldn't want it any better."
"What about the man I wounded." she asked apprehensively. "Is he-- is it all right?"
"Haven't you heard?"
"Heard what?" He could see the terror in her eyes.
"How it all came out?"
He could not tell why he did it, any more than he could tell why he had attempted no denial to the sheriff of responsibility for the death of Faulkner, but as he looked at this girl he shifted the burden from her shoulders to his. "You got your man in the ankle. I had worse luck after you left. They buried mine."
"Oh!" From her lips a little cry of pain forced itself. "It wasn't your fault. It was for us you did it. Oh, why did they attack us?"
"I did what I had to do. There is no blame due either you or me for it," he said, with quiet conviction.
"I know. But it seems so dreadful. And then they put you in jail-- and you broke out! Wasn't that it?"
"That was the way of it, Miss Arlie. How did you know?"
"Henry Speed's note to father said you had broken jail. Dad wasn't at home. You know, the round-up is on now and he has to be there. So I saddled, and came right away."
"That was right good of you."
"Wasn't it?" There was a softened, almost tender, jeer in her voice. "Since you only saved our lives!"
"I ain't claiming all that, Miss Arlie."
"Then I'll claim it for you. I suppose you gave yourself up to them and explained how it was after we left."
"Not exactly that. I managed to slip away, through the sage. It was mo'ning before I found the road again. Soon as I did, a deputy tagged me, and said, 'You're mine.' He spoke for me so prompt and seemed so sure about what he was saying, I didn't argue the matter with him." He laughed gayly.
"Then he herded me to town, and I was invited to be the county's guest. Not liking the accommodations, I took the first chance and flew the coop. They missed a knife in my pocket when they searched me, and I chipped the cement away from the window bars, let myself down by the bed linen, and borrowed a cow-pony I found saddled at the edge of town. So, you see, I'm a hawss thief too, ma'am."
She could not take it so lightly as he did, even though she did not know that he had barely escaped with his life. Something about his debonair, smiling hardihood touched her imagination, as did also the virile competence of the man. If the cool eyes in his weatherbeaten face could be hard as agates, they could also light up with sparkling imps of mischief. Certainly he was no boy, but the close-cut waves of crisp, reddish hair and the ready smile contributed to an impression of youth that came and went.
"Willie Speed is saddling you a horse. The one you came on has been turned loose to go back when it wants to. I'm going to take you home with me," she told him.
"Well, I'm willing to be kidnapped."
"I brought your horse Teddy. If you like, you may ride that, and I'll take the other."
"Yore a gentleman, ma'am. I sure would."
When Arlie saw with what pleasure the friends met, how Teddy nickered and rubbed his nose up and down his master's coat and how the Texan put him through his little repertoire of tricks and fed him a lump of sugar from his coat pocket, she was glad she had ridden Teddy instead of her own pony to the meeting.
They took the road without loss of time. Arlie Dillon knew exactly how to cross this difficult region. She knew the Cedar Mountain district as a grade teacher knows her arithmetic. In daylight or in darkness, with or without a trail, she could have traveled almost a bee line to the point she wanted. Her life had been spent largely in the saddle-- at least that part of it which had been lived outdoors. Wherefore she was able to lead her guest by secret trails that wound in and out among the passes and through unsuspected gorges to hazardous descents possible only to goats and cow ponies. No stranger finding his way in would have stood a chance of getting out again unaided.
Among these peaks lay hidden pockets and caches by hundreds, rock fissures which made the country a very maze to the uninitiated. The ranger, himself one of the best trailers in Texas, doubted whether he could retrace his steps to the Speed place.
After several hours of travel, they emerged from a gulch to a little valley known as Beaver Dam Park. The girl pointed out to her companion a narrow brown ribbon that wound through the park.
"There's the road again. That's the last we shall see of it-- or it will be when we have crossed it. Once we reach the Twin Buttes that are the gateway to French Cañon you are perfectly safe. You can see the buttes from here. No, farther to the right."
"I thought I'd ridden some tough trails in my time, but this country ce'tainly takes the cake," Fraser said admiringly, as his gaze swept the horizon. "It puts it over anything I ever met up with. Ain't that right, Teddy hawss?"
The girl flushed with pleasure at his praise. She was mountain bred, and she loved the country of the great peaks.
They descended the valley, crossed the road, and in an open grassy spot just beyond, came plump upon four men who had unsaddled to eat lunch.
The meeting came too abruptly for Arlie to avoid it. One glance told her that they were deputies from Gimlet Butte. Without the least hesitation she rode forward and gave them the casual greeting of cattleland. Fraser, riding beside her, nodded coolly, drew to a halt, and lit a cigarette.
"Found him yet, gentlemen?" he asked.
"No, nor we ain't likely to, if he's reached this far," one of the men answered.
"It would be some difficult to collect him here," the Texan admitted impartially.
"Among his friends," one of the deputies put in, with a snarl.
Fraser laughed easily. "Oh, well, we ain't his enemies, though he ain't very well known in the Cedar Mountain country. What might he be like, pardner?"
"Hasn't he lived up here long?" asked one of the men, busy with some bacon over a fire.
"They say not."
"He's a heavy-set fellow, with reddish hair; not so tall as you, I reckon, and some heavier. Was wearing chaps and gauntlets when he made his getaway. From the description, he looks something like you, I shouldn't wonder."
Fraser congratulated himself that he had had the foresight to discard as many as possible of these helps to identification before he was three miles from Gimlet Butte. Now he laughed pleasantly.
"Sure he's heavier than me, and not so tall."
"It would be a good joke, Bud, if they took you back to town for this man," cut in Arlie, troubled at the direction the conversation was taking, but not obviously so.
"I ain't objecting any, sis. About three days of the joys of town would sure agree with my run-down system," the Texan answered joyously.
"When you cowpunchers do get in, you surely make Rome howl," one of the deputies agreed, with a grin. "Been in to the Butte lately?"
The Texan met his grin. "It ain't been so long."
"Well, you ain't liable to get in again for a while," Arlie said emphatically. "Come on, Bud, we've got to be moving."
"Which way is Dead Cow Creek?" one of the men called after them.
Fraser pointed in the direction from which he had just come.
After they had ridden a hundred yards, the girl laughed aloud her relief at their escape. "If they go the way you pointed for Dead Cow Creek, they will have to go clear round the world to get to it. We're headed for the creek now."
"A fellow can't always guess right," pleaded the Texan. "If he could, what a fiend he would be at playing the wheel! Shall I go back and tell him I misremembered for a moment where the creek is?"
"No, sir. You had me scared badly enough when you drew their attention to yourself. Why did you do it?"
"It was the surest way to disarm any suspicion they might have had. One of them had just said the man they wanted was like me. Presently, one would have been guessing that it was me." He looked at her drolly, and added: "You played up to me fine, sis."
A touch of deeper color beat into her dusky cheeks. "We'll drop the relationship right now, if you please. I said only what you made me say," she told him, a little stiffly.
But presently she relaxed to the note of friendliness, even of comradeship, habitual to her. She was a singularly frank creature, having been brought up in a country where women were few and far, and where conventions were of the simplest. Otherwise, she would not have confessed to him with unconscious näiveté, as she now did, how greatly she had been troubled for him before she received the note from Speed.
"It worried me all the time, and it troubled dad, too. I could see that. We had hardly left you before I knew we had done wrong. Dad did it for me, of course; but he felt mighty bad about it. Somehow, I couldn't think of anything but you there, with all those men shooting at you. Suppose you had waited too long before surrendering! Suppose you had been killed for us!" She looked at him, and felt a shiver run over her in the warm sunlight. "Night before last I was worn out. I slept some, but I kept dreaming they were killing you. Oh, you don't know bow glad I was to get word from Speed that you were alive." Her soft voice had the gift of expressing feeling, and it was resonant with it now.
"I'm glad you were glad," he said quietly.
Across Dead Cow Creek they rode, following the stream up French Cañon to what was known as the Narrows. Here the great rock walls, nearly two thousand feet high, came so close together as to leave barely room for a footpath beside the creek which boiled down over great bowlders. Unexpectedly, there opened in the wall a rock fissure, and through this Arlie guided her horse.
The Texan wondered where she could be taking him, for the fissure terminated in a great rock slide some two hundred yards ahead of them. Before reaching this she turned sharply to the left, and began winding in and out among the big bowlders which had fallen from the summit far above.
Presently Fraser observed with astonishment that they were following a path that crept up the very face of the bluff. Up-- up-- up they went until they reached a rift in the wall, and into this the trail went precipitously. Stones clattered down from the hoofs of the horses as they clambered up like mountain goats. Once the Texan had to throw himself to the ground to keep Teddy from falling backward.
Arlie, working her pony forward with voice and body and knees, so that from her seat in the saddle she seemed literally to lift him up, reached the summit and looked back.
"All right back there?" she asked quietly.
"All right," came the cheerful answer. "Teddy isn't used to climbing up a wall, but he'll make it or know why."
A minute later, man and horse were beside her.
"Good for Teddy," she said, fondling his nose.
"Look out! He doesn't like strangers to handle him."
"We're not strangers. We're tillicums. Aren't we, Teddy?"
Teddy said "Yes" after the manner of a horse, as plain as words could say it.
From their feet the trail dropped again to another gorge, beyond which the ranger could make out a stretch of valley through which ran the gleam of a silvery thread.
"We're going down now into Mantrap Gulch. The patch of green you see beyond is Lost Valley," she told him,
"Lost Valley," he repeated, in amazement. "Are we going to Lost Valley?"
"You've named our destination."
"But-- you don't live in Lost Valley."
"Yes," she answered, amused at his consternation, if it were that.
"I wish I had known," he said, as if to himself.
"You know now. Isn't that soon enough? Are you afraid of the place, because people make a mystery of it?" she demanded impatiently.
"No. It isn't that." He looked across at the valley again, and asked abruptly: "Is this the only way in?"
"No. There is another, but this is the quickest."
"Is the other as difficult as this?"
"In a way, yes. It is very much more round-about. It isn't known much by the public. Not many outsiders have business in the valley."
She volunteered no explanation in detail, and the man beside her said, with a grim laugh:
"There isn't any general admission to the public this way, is there?"
"No. Oh, folks can come if they want to."
He looked full in her face, and said significantly: "I thought the way to Lost Valley was a sort of a secret-- one that those who know are not expected to tell."
"Oh, that's just talk. Not many come in but our friends. We've had to be careful lately. But you can't call a secret what a thousand folks know."
It was like a blow in the face to him. Not many but their friends! And she was taking him in confidently because he was her friend. What sort of a friend was he? he asked himself. He could not perform the task to which he was pledged without striking home at her. If he succeeded in ferreting out the Squaw Creek raiders he must send to the penitentiary, perhaps to death, her neighbors, and possibly her relatives. She had told him her father was not implicated, but a daughter's faith in her parent was not convincing proof of his innocence. If not her father, a brother might be involved. And she was innocently making it easy for him to meet on a friendly footing these hospitable, unsuspecting savages, who had shed human blood because of the unleashed passions in them!
In that moment, while he looked away toward Lost Valley, he sickened of the task that lay before him. What would she think of him if she knew?
Arlie, too, had been looking down the gulch toward the valley. Now her gaze came slowly round to him and caught the expression of his face.
"What's the matter?" she cried.
"Nothing. Nothing at all. An old heart pain that caught me suddenly."
"I'm sorry. We'll soon be home now. We'll travel slowly."
Her voice was tender with sympathy; so, too, were her eyes when he met them.
He looked away again and groaned in his heart.