Part II. The Girl of Lost Valley
Chapter VI. A Sure Enough Wolf
 

Briscoe did not return at once to the scene of the round-up. He followed the trail toward Jackson's Pocket, but diverged after he had gone a few miles and turned into one of the hundred blind gulches that ran out from the valley to the impassable mountain wall behind. It was known as Jack Rabbit Run, because its labyrinthine trails offered a retreat into which hunted men might always dive for safety. Nobody knew its recesses better than Jed Briscoe, who was acknowledged to be the leader of that faction in the valley which had brought it the bad name it held.

Long before Jed's time there had been such a faction, then the dominant one of the place, now steadily losing ground as civilization seeped in, but still strong because bound by ties of kindred and of interest to the honest law-abiding majority. Of it were the outlaws who came periodically to find shelter here, the hasty men who had struck in heat and found it necessary to get beyond the law's reach for a time, and reckless cowpunchers, who foregathered with these, because they were birds of a feather. To all such, Jack Rabbit Run was a haven of rest.

By devious paths the cattleman guided his horse until he came to a kind of pouch, guarded by a thick growth of aspens. The front of these he skirted, plunged into them at the farther edge, and followed a narrow trail which wound among them till the grove opened upon a saucer-shaped valley in which nestled a little log cabin. Lights gleamed from the windows hospitably and suggested the comfortable warmth of a log fire and good-fellowship. So many a hunted man had thought as he emerged from that grove to look down upon the valley nestling at his feet.

Jed turned his horse into a corral back of the house, let out the hoot of an owl as he fed and watered, and returning to the cabin, gave the four knocks that were the signal for admission.

Bolts were promptly withdrawn and the door thrown open by a slender, fair-haired fellow, whose features looked as if they had been roughed out and not finished. He grinned amiably at the newcomer and greeted him with: "Hello, Jed."

"Hello, Tommie," returned Briscoe, carelessly, and let his glance pass to the three men seated at the table with cards and poker chips in front of them, The man facing Briscoe was a big, heavy-set, unmistakable ruffian with long, drooping, red mustache, and villainous, fishy eyes. It was observable that the trigger finger of his right hand was missing. Also, there was a nasty scar on his right cheek running from the bridge of the nose halfway to the ear. This gave surplusage to the sinister appearance he already had. To him Briscoe spoke first, attempting a geniality he did not feel.

"How're they coming, Texas?"

"You ain't heard me kicking any, have you?" the man made sullen answer.

"Not out loud," said Briscoe significantly, his eyes narrowing after a trick they had when he was most on his guard.

"I reckon my remarks will be plumb audible when I've got any kick to register, seh."

"I hope not, Mr. Johnson. In this neck of woods a man is liable to get himself disliked if he shoots off his mouth too prevalent. Folks that don't like our ways can usually find a door open out of Lost Valley-- -if they don't wait too long!"

"I'm some haidstrong. I reckon I'll stay." He scowled at Jed with disfavor, meeting him eye to eye. But presently the rigor of his gaze relaxed. Me remembered that he was a fugitive from justice, and at the mercy of this man who had so far guessed his secret. Putting a temporary curb on his bilious jealousy, he sulkily added: "Leastways, if there's no objection, Mr. Briscoe. I ain't looking for trouble with anybody."

"A man who's looking for it usually finds it, Mr. Johnson. A man that ain't, lives longer and more peaceable." At this point Jed pulled himself together and bottled his arrogance, remembering that he had come to make an alliance with this man. "But that's no way for friends to talk. I got a piece of news for you. We'll talk it over in the other room and not disturb these gentlemen."

One of the "gentlemen" grinned. He was a round-bodied, bullet-headed cowpuncher, with a face like burnt leather. He was in chaps, flannel shirt, and broad-brimmed hat. From a pocket in his chaps a revolver protruded. "That's right, Jed. Wrap it up proper. You'd hate to disturb us, wouldn't you?"

"I'll not interrupt you from losing your money more than five minutes, Yorky," answered Briscoe promptly.

The third man at the table laughed suddenly. "Ay bane laik to know how yuh feel now, Yorky?" he taunted.

"It ain't you that's taking my spondulix in, you big, overgrown Swede!" returned Yorky amiably. "It's the gent from Texas. How can a fellow buck against luck that fills from a pair to a full house on the draw?"

The blond giant, Siegfried-- who was not a Swede, but a Norwegian-- announced that he was seventeen dollars in the game himself.

Tommie, already broke, and an onlooker, reported sadly.

"Sixty-one for me, durn it!"

Jed picked up a lamp, led the way to the other room, and closed the door behind them.

"I thought it might interest you to know that there's a new arrival in the valley, Mr. Struve," he said smoothly.

"Who says my name's Struve?" demanded the man who called himself Johnson, with fierce suspicion.

Briscoe laughed softly. "I say it-- Wolf Struve. Up till last month your address for two years has been number nine thousand four hundred and thirty-two, care of Penitentiary Warden, Yuma, Arizona."

"Prove it. Prove it," blustered the accused man.

"Sure." From his inside coat pocket Jed took out a printed notice offering a reward for the capture of Nick Struve, alias "Wolf" Struve, convict, who had broken prison on the night of February seventh, and escaped, after murdering one of the guards. A description and a photograph of the man wanted was appended.

"Looks some like you. Don't it, Mr.-- shall I say Johnson or Struve?"

"Say Johnson!" roared the Texan. "That ain't me. I'm no jailbird."

"Glad to know it." Briscoe laughed in suave triumph. "I thought you might be. This description sounds some familiar. I'll not read it all. But listen: 'Scar on right cheek, running from bridge of nose toward ear. Trigger finger missing; shot away when last arrested. Weight, about one hundred and ninety.' By the way, just out of curiosity, how heavy are you, Mr. Johnson? 'Height, five feet nine inches. Protuberant, fishy eyes. Long, drooping, reddish mustache.' I'd shave that mustache if I were you, Mr.-- er-- Johnson. Some one might mistake you for Nick Struve."

The man who called himself Johnson recognized denial as futile. He flung up the sponge with a blasphemous oath. "What do you want? What's your game? Do you want to sell me for the reward? By thunder, you'd better not!"

Briscoe gave way to one of the swift bursts of passion to which he was subject. "Don't threaten me, you prison scum! Don't come here and try to dictate what I'm to do, and what I'm not to do. I'll sell you if I want to. I'll send you back to be hanged like a dog. Say the word, and I'll have you dragged out of here inside of forty-eight hours."

Struve reached for his gun, but the other, wary as a panther, had him covered while the convict's revolver was still in his pocket.

"Reach for the roof! Quick-- or I'll drill a hole in you! That's the idea. I reckon I'll collect your hardware while I'm at it. That's a heap better."

Struve glared at him, speechless.

"You're too slow on the draw for this part of the country, my friend," jeered Briscoe. "Or perhaps, while you were at Yuma, you got out of practice. It's like stealing candy from a kid to beat you to it. Don't ever try to draw a gun again in Lost Valley while you're asleep. You might never waken."

Jed was in high good humor with himself. His victim looked silent murder at him.

"One more thing, while you're in a teachable frame of mind," continued Briscoe. "I run Lost Valley. What I say, goes here. Get that soaked into your think-tank, my friend. Ever since you came, you've been disputing that in your mind. You've been stirring up the boys against me. Think I haven't noticed it? Guess again, Mr. Struve. You'd like to be boss yourself, wouldn't you? Forget it. Down in Texas you may be a bad, bad man, a sure enough wolf, but in Wyoming you only stack up to coyote size. Let this slip your mind, and I'll be running Lost Valley after your bones are picked white by the buzzards."

"I ain't a-goin' to make you any trouble. Didn't I tell you that before?" growled Struve reluctantly.

"See you don't, then. Now I'll come again to my news. I was telling you that there's another stranger in this valley, Mr. Struve. Hails from Texas, too. Name of Fraser. Ever hear of him?"

Briscoe was hardly prepared for the change which came over the Texan at mention of that name. The prominent eyes stared, and a deep, apoplectic flush ran over the scarred face. The hand that caught at the wall trembled with excitement.

"You mean Steve Fraser-- Fraser of the Rangers!" he gasped.

"That's what I'm not sure of. I got to milling it over after I left him, and it come to me I'd seen him or his picture before. You still got that magazine with the article about him?"

"Yes,"

"I looked it over hurriedly. Let me see his picture again, and I'll tell you if it's the same man."

"It's in the other room."

"Get it."

Struve presently returned with the magazine, and, opening it, pointed to a photograph of a young officer in uniform, with the caption underneath:

LIEUTENANT STEPHEN FRASER OF THE TEXAS RANGERS
Who, single-handed, ran down and brought to justice the worst gang of
outlaws known in recent years.

"It's the same man," Briscoe announced.

The escaped convict's mouth set in a cruel line.

"One of us, either him or me, never leaves this valley alive," he announced.

Jed laughed softly and handed back the revolver. "That's the way to talk. My friend, if you mean that, you'll need your gun. Here's hoping you beat him to it."

"It won't be an even break this time if I can help it."

"I gather that it was, last time."

"Yep. We drew together." Struve interlarded his explanation with oaths. "He's a devil with a gun. See that?" He held up his right band.

"I see you're shy your most useful finger, if that's what you mean."

"Fraser took it off clean at twenty yards. I got him in the hand, too, but right or left he's a dead shot. He might 'a' killed me if he hadn't wanted to take me alive. Before I'm through with him he'll wish he had."

"Well, you don't want to make any mistake next time. Get him right."

"I sure will." Hitherto Struve had been absorbed in his own turbid emotions, but he came back from them now with a new-born suspicion in his eyes. "Where do you come in, Mr. Briscoe? Why are you so plumb anxious I should load him up with lead? If it's a showdown, I'd some like to see your cards too."

Jed shrugged. "My reasons ain't urgent like yours. I don't favor spies poking their noses in here. That's all there's to it."

Jed had worked out a plot as he rode through the night from the Dillon ranch-- one so safe and certain that it pointed to sure success. Jed was no coward, but he had a spider-like cunning that wove others as dupes into the web of his plans.

The only weakness in his position lay in himself, in that sudden boiling up of passion in him that was likely to tear through his own web and destroy it. Three months ago he had given way to one of these outbursts, and he knew that any one of four or five men could put a noose around his neck. That was another reason why such a man as this Texas ranger must not be allowed to meet and mix with them.

It was his cue to know as much as he could of every man that came into the valley. Wherefore he had run down the record of Struve from the reward placard which a detective agency furnished him of hundreds of criminals who were wanted. What could be more simple than to stir up the convict, in order to save himself, to destroy the ranger who had run him down before? There would be a demand so insistent for the punishment of the murderer that it could not be ignored. He would find some pretext to lure Struve from the valley for a day or two, and would arrange it so that he would be arrested while he was away. Thus he would be rid of both these troublesome intruders without making a move that could be seen.

It was all as simple as A B C. Already Struve had walked into the trap. As Jed sat down to take a hand in the poker game that was in progress, he chuckled quietly to himself. He was quite sure that he was already practically master of the situation.