Part II. The Girl of Lost Valley
Chapter VIII. The Broncho Busters
 

Jed Briscoe rejoined the round-up the day following Fraser's initiation. He took silent note of the Texan's popularity, of how the boys all called him "Steve" because he had become one of them, and were ready either to lark with him or work with him. He noticed, too, that the ranger did his share of work without a whimper, apparently enjoying the long, hard hours in the saddle. The hill riding was of the roughest, and the cattle were wild as deers and as agile. But there was no break-neck incline too steep for Steve Fraser to follow.

Once Jed chanced upon Steve stripped for a bath beside the creek, and he understood the physical reason for his perfect poise. The wiry, sinuous muscles, packed compactly without obtrusion, played beneath the skin like those of a panther. He walked as softly and as easily as one, with something of the rippling, unconscious grace of that jungle lord. It was this certainty of himself that vivified the steel-gray eyes which looked forth unafraid, and yet amiably, upon a world primitive enough to demand proof of every man who would hold the respect of his fellows.

Meanwhile, Briscoe waited for Struve and his enemy to become entangled in the net he was spinning. He made no pretense of fellowship with Fraser; nor, on the other hand, did he actively set himself against him with the men. He was ready enough to sneer when Dick France grew enthusiastic about his new friend, but this was to be expected from one of his jaundiced temper.

"Who is this all-round crackerjack you're touting, Dick?" he asked significantly.

France was puzzled. "Who is he? Why, he's Steve Fraser."

"I ain't asking you what his name is. I'm asking who he is. What does he do for a living? Who recommended him so strong to the boys that they take up with him so sudden?"

"I don't care what he does for a living. Likely, he rides the range in Texas. When it comes to recommendations, he's got one mighty good one written on his face,"

"You think so, do you?"

"That's what I think, Jed. He's the goods-- best of company, a straight-up rider, and a first-rate puncher. Ask any of the boys."

"I'm using my eyes, Dick. They tell me all I need to know."

"Well, use them to-morrow. He's going to take a whirl at riding Dead Easy. Next day he's going to take on Rocking Horse. If he makes good on them, you'll admit he can ride."

"I ain't saying he can't ride. So can you. If it's plumb gentle, I can make out to stick on a pony myself."

"Course you can ride. Everybody knows that. You're the best ever. Any man that can win the championship of Wyoming---- But you'll say yourself them strawberry roans are wicked devils."

"He hasn't ridden them yet, Dick."

"He's going to."

"We'll be there to see it. Mebbe he will. Mebbe he won't. I've known men before who thought they were going to."

It was in no moment of good-natured weakness that Fraser had consented to try riding the outlaw horses. Nor had his vanity anything to do with it. He knew a time might be coming when he would need all the prestige and all the friendship he could earn to tide him over the crisis. Jed Briscoe had won his leadership, partly because he could shoot quicker and straighter, ride harder, throw a rope more accurately, and play poker better than his companions,

Steve had a mind to show that he, too, could do some of these things passing well. Wherefore, he had let himself be badgered good-naturedly into trying a fall with these famous buckers. As the heavy work of the round-up was almost over, Dillon was glad to relax discipline enough to give the boys a little fun.

The remuda was driven up while the outfit was at breakfast. His friends guyed Steve with pleasant prophecy.

"He'll be hunting leather about the fourth buck!"

"If he ain't trying to make of himse'f one of them there Darius Green machines!" suggested another.

"Got any last words, Steve? Dead Easy most generally eats 'em alive," Dick derided.

"Sho! Cayn't you see he's so plumb scared he cayn't talk?"

Fraser grinned and continued to eat. When he had finished he got his lariat from the saddle, swung to Siegfried's pony, and rode unobtrusively forward to the remuda. The horses were circling round and round, so that it was several minutes before he found a chance. When he did, the rope snaked forward and dropped over the head of the strawberry roan. The horse stood trembling, making not the least resistance, even while the ranger saddled and cinched.

But before the man settled to the saddle, the outlaw was off on its furious resistance. It went forward and up into the air with a plunging leap. The rider swung his hat and gave a joyous whoop. Next instant there was a scatter of laughing men as the horse came toward them in a series of short, stiff-legged bucks which would have jarred its rider like a pile driver falling on his head had he not let himself grow limp to meet the shock.

All the tricks of its kind this unbroken five-year-old knew. Weaving, pitching, sunfishing, it fought superbly, the while Steve rode with the consummate ease of a master. His sinuous form swayed instinctively to every changing motion of his mount. Even when it flung itself back in blind fury, he dropped lightly from the saddle and into it again as the animal struggled to its feet.

The cook waved a frying pan in frantic glee. "Hurra-ay! You're the goods, all right, all right."

"You bet. Watch Steve fan him. And he ain't pulled leather yet. Not once."

An unseen spectator was taking it in from the brow of a little hill crowned with a group of firs. She had reached this point just as the Texan had swung to the saddle, and she watched the battle between horse and man intently. If any had been there to see, he might have observed a strange fire smouldering in her eyes. For the first time there was filtering through her a vague suspicion of this man who claimed to have heart trouble, and had deliberately subjected himself to the terrific strain of such a test. She had seen broncho busters get off bleeding at mouth and nose and ears after a hard fight, and she had never seen a contest more superbly fought than this one. But full of courage as the horse was, it had met its master and began to know it.

The ranger's quirt was going up and down, stinging Dead Easy to more violent exertions, if possible. But the outlaw had shot its bolt. The plunges grew less vicious, the bucks more feeble. It still pitched, because of the unbroken gameness that defied defeat, but so mechanically that the motions could be forecasted.

Then Steve began to soothe the brute. Somehow the wild creatu ecame aware that this man who was his master was also disposed to be friendly. Presently it gave up the battle, quivering in every limb. Fraser slipped from the saddle, and putting his arm across its neck began to gentle the outlaw. The animal had always looked the incarnation of wickedness. The red eyes in its ill-shaped head were enough to give one bad dreams. A quarter of an hour before, it had bit savagely at him. Now it stood breathing deep, and trembling while its master let his hand pass gently over the nose and neck with soft words that slowly won the pony back from the terror into which it had worked itself.

"You did well, Mr. Fraser from Texas," Jed complimented him, with a smile that thinly hid his malice. "But it won't do to have you going back to Texas with the word that Wyoming is shy of riders. I ain't any great shakes, but I reckon I'll have to take a whirl at Rocking Horse." He had decided to ride for two reasons. One was that he had glimpsed the girl among the firs; the other was to dissipate the admiration his rival had created among the men.

Briscoe lounged toward the remuda, rope in hand. It was his cue to get himself up picturesquely in all the paraphernalia of the cowboy. Black-haired and white-toothed, lithe as a wolf, and endowed with a grace almost feline, it was easy to understand how this man appealed to the imagination of the reckless young fellows of this primeval valley. Everything he did was done well. Furthermore, he looked and acted the part of leader which he assumed.

Rocking Horse was in a different mood from its brother. It was hard to rope, and when Jed's raw-hide had fallen over its head it was necessary to reŽnforce the lariat with two others. Finally the pony had to be flung down before a saddle could be put on. When Siegfried, who had been kneeling on its head, stepped back, the outlaw staggered to its feet, already badly shaken, to find an incubus clamped to the saddle.

No matter how it pitched, the human clothespin stuck to his seat, and apparently with as little concern as if he had been in a rowboat gently moved to and fro by the waves. Jed rode like a centaur, every motion attuned to those of the animal as much as if he were a part of it. No matter how it pounded or tossed, he stuck securely to the hurricane deck of the broncho.

Once only he was in danger, and that because Rocking Horse flung furiously against the wheel of a wagon and ground the rider's leg till he grew dizzy with the pain. For an instant he caught at the saddle horn to steady himself as the roan bucked into the open again.

"He's pulling leather!" some one shouted.

"Shut up, you goat!" advised the Texan good-naturedly. "Can't you see his laig got jammed till he's groggy? Wonder is, he didn't take the dust! They don't raise better riders than he is."

"By hockey! He's all in. Look out! Jed's falling," France cried, running forward.

It looked so for a moment, then Jed swam back to clear consciousness again, and waved them back. He began to use his quirt without mercy.

"Might know he'd game it out," remarked Yorky.

He did. It was a long fight, and the horse was flecked with bloody foam before its spirit and strength failed. But the man in the saddle kept his seat till the victory was won.

Steve was on the spot to join heartily the murmur of applause, for he was too good a sportsman to grudge admiration even to his enemy.

"You're the one best bet in riders, Mr. Briscoe. It's a pleasure to watch you," he said frankly.

Jed's narrowed eyes drifted to him. "Oh, hell!" he drawled with insolent contempt, and turned on his heel.

From the clump of firs a young woman was descending, and Jed went to meet her.

"You rode splendidly," she told him with vivid eyes. "Were you hurt when you were jammed again the wagon? I mean, does it still hurt?" For she noticed that he walked with a limp.

"I reckon I can stand the grief without an amputation. Arlie, I got something to tell you."

She looked at him in her direct fashion and waited.

"It's about your new friend." He drew from a pocket some leaves torn out of a magazine. His finger indicated a picture. "Ever see that gentleman before?"

The girl looked at it coolly. "It seems to be Mr. Fraser taken in his uniform; Lieutenant Fraser, I should say."

The cattleman's face fell. "You know, then, who he is, and what he's doing here."

Without evasion, her gaze met his. "I understood him to say he was an officer in the Texas Rangers. You know why he is here."

"You're right, I do. But do you?"

"Well, what is it you mean? Out with it, Jed," she demanded impatiently.

"He is here to get a man wanted in Texas, a man hiding in this valley right now."

"I don't believe it," she returned quickly. "And if he is, that's not your business or mine. It's his duty, isn't it?"

"I ain't discussing that. You know the law of the valley, Arlie."

"I don't accept that as binding, Jed. Lots of people here don't. Because Lost Valley used to be a nest of miscreants, it needn't always be. I don't see what right we've got to set ourselves above the law."

"This valley has always stood by hunted men when they reached it. That's our custom, and I mean to stick to it."

"Very well. I hold you to that," she answered quickly. "This man Fraser is a hunted man. He's hunted because of what he did for me and dad. I claim the protection of the valley for him."

"He can have it-- if he's what he says he is. But why ain't he been square with us? Why didn't he tell who he was?"

"He told me."

"That ain't enough, Arlie. If he did, you kept it quiet. We all had a right to know."

"If you had asked him, he would have told you."

"I ain't so sure he would. Anyhow, I don't like it. I believe he is here to get the man I told you of. Mebbe that ain't all."

"What more?" she scoffed.

"This fellow is the best range detective in the country. My notion is he's spying around about that Squaw Creek raid."

Under the dusky skin she flushed angrily. "My notion is you're daffy, Jed. Talk sense, and I'll listen to you. You haven't a grain of proof."

"I may get some yet," he told her sulkily.

She laughed her disbelief. "When you do, let me know,"

And with that she gave her pony the signal to more forward.

Nevertheless, she met the ranger at the foot of the little hill with distinct coldness. When he came up to shake hands, she was too busy dismounting to notice.

"Your heart must be a good deal better. I suppose Lost Valley agrees with you." She had swung down on the other side of the horse, and her glance at him across the saddle seat was like a rapier thrust.

He was aware at once of being in disgrace with her, and it chafed him that he had no adequate answer to her implied charge.

"My heart's all right," he said a little gruffly.

"Yes, it seems to be, lieutenant."

She trailed the reins and turned away at once to find her father. The girl was disappointed in him. He had, in effect, lied to her. That was bad enough; but she felt that his lie had concealed something, how much she scarce dared say. Her tangled thoughts were in chaos. One moment she was ready to believe the worst; the next, it was impossible to conceive such a man so vile a spy as to reward hospitality with treachery.

Yet she remembered now that it had been while she was telling of the fate of the traitor Burke that she had driven him to his lie. Or had he not told it first when she pointed out Lost Valley at his feet? Yes, it was at that moment she had noticed his pallor. He had, at least, conscience enough to be ashamed of what he was doing. But she recognized a wide margin of difference between the possibilities of his guilt. It was one thing to come to the valley for an escaped murderer; it was quite another to use the hospitality of his host as a means to betray the friends of that host. Deep in her heart she could not find it possible to convict him of the latter alternative. He was too much a man, too vitally dynamic. No; whatever else he was, she felt sure he was not so hopelessly lost to decency. He had that electric spark of self-respect which may coexist with many faults, but not with treachery.