Part II. The Girl of Lost Valley
Chapter IX. A Shot from Bald Knob
 

A bunch of young steers which had strayed from their range were to be driven to the Dillon ranch, and the boss of the rodeo appointed France and Fraser to the task.

"Yo'll have company home, honey," he told his daughter, "and yo'll be able to give the boys a hand if they need it. These hill cattle are still some wild, though we've been working them a week. Yo're a heap better cowboy than some that works more steady at the business."

Briscoe nodded. "You bet! I ain't forgot that day Arlie rode Big Timber with me two years ago. She wasn't sixteen then, but she herded them hill steers like they belonged to a milk bunch."

He spoke his compliment patly enough, but somehow the girl had an impression that he was thinking of something else. She was right, for as he helped gather the drive his mind was busy with a problem. Presently he dismounted to tighten a cinch, and made a signal to a young fellow known as Slim Leroy. The latter was a new and tender recruit to Jed's band of miscreants. He drew up beside his leader and examined one of the fore hoofs of his pony.

"Slim, I'm going to have Dillon send you for the mail to-day. When he tells you, that's the first you know about it. Understand? You'll have to take the hill cut to Jack Rabbit Run on your way in. At the cabin back of the aspens, inquire for a man that calls himself Johnson. If he's there, give him this message: 'This afternoon from Bald Knob.' Remember! Just those words, and nothing more. If he isn't there, forget the message. You'll know the man you want because he is shy his trigger finger and has a ragged scar across his right cheek. Make no mistake about this, Slim."

"Sure I won't."

Briscoe, having finished cinching, swung to his saddle and rode up to say good-by to Arlie.

"Hope you'll have no trouble with this bunch. If you push right along you'd ought to get home by night," he told her.

Arlie agreed carelessly. "I don't expect any trouble with them. So-long, Jed."

It would not have been her choice to ride home with the lieutenant of rangers, but since her father had made the appointment publicly she did not care to make objection. Yet she took care to let Fraser see that he was in her black books. The men rode toward the rear of the herd, one on each side, and Arlie fell in beside her old playmate, Dick. She laughed and talked with him about a hundred things in which Steve could have had no part, even if he had been close enough to catch more than one word out of twenty. Not once did she even look his way. Quite plainly she had taken pains to forget his existence.

"It was Briscoe's turn the other day," mused the Texan. "It's mine now. I wonder when it will be Dick's to get put out in the cold!"

Nevertheless, though he tried to act the philosopher, it cut him that the high-spirited girl had condemned him. He felt himself in a false position from which he could not easily extricate himself. The worst of it was that if it came to a showdown he could not expect the simple truth to exonerate him.

From where they rode there drifted to him occasionally the sound of the gay voices of the young people. It struck him for the first time that he was getting old. Arlie could not be over eighteen, and Dick perhaps twenty-one. Maybe young people like that thought a fellow of twenty-seven a Methusaleh.

After a time the thirsty cattle smelt water and hit a bee line so steadily for it that they needed no watching. Every minute or two one of the leaders stretched out its neck and let out a bellow without slackening its pace.

Steve lazed on his pony, shifting his position to ease his cramped limbs after the manner of the range rider. In spite of himself, his eyes would drift toward the jaunty little figure on the pinto. The masculine in him approved mightily her lissom grace and the proud lilt of her dark head, with its sun-kissed face set in profile to him. He thought her serviceable costume very becoming, from the pinched felt hat pinned to the dark mass of hair, and the red silk kerchief knotted loosely round the pretty throat, to the leggings beneath the corduroy skirt and the flannel waist with sleeves rolled up in summer-girl fashion to leave the tanned arms bare to the dimpled elbows.

The trail, winding through a narrow defile, brought them side by side again.

"Ever notice what a persistent color buckskin is, Steve?" inquired France, by way of bringing him into the conversation. "It's strong in every one of these cattle, though the old man has been trying to get rid of it for ten years."

"You mustn't talk to me, Dick," responded his friend gravely. "Little Willie told a lie, and he's being stood in a corner."

Arlie flushed angrily, opened her mouth to speak, and, changing her mind, looked at him witheringly. He didn't wither, however. Instead, he smiled broadly, got out his mouth organ, and cheerfully entertained them with his favorite, "I Met My Love In the Alamo."

The hot blood under dusky skin held its own in her cheeks. She was furious with him, and dared not trust herself to speak. As soon as they had passed through the defile she spurred forward, as if to turn the leaders. France turned to his friend and laughed ruefully.

"She's full of pepper, Steve."

The ranger nodded. "She's all right, Dick. If you want to know, she's got a right to make a doormat of me. I lied to her. I was up against it, and I kinder had to. You ride along and join her. If you want to get right solid, tell her how many kinds of a skunk I am. Worst of it is, I ain't any too sure I'm not."

"I'm sure for you then, Steve," the lad called back, as he loped forward after the girl.

He was so sure, that he began to praise his friend to Arlie, to tell her of what a competent cowman he was, how none of them could make a cut or rope a wild steer like him. She presently wanted to know whether Dick could not find something more interesting to talk about.

He could not help smiling at her downright manner. "You've surely got it in for him, Arlie. I thought you liked him."

She pulled up her horse, and looked at him. "What made you think that? Did he tell you so?"

Dick fairly shouted. "You do rub it in, girl, when you've got a down on a fellow. No, he didn't tell me. You did."

"Me?" she protested indignantly. "I never did."

"Oh, you didn't say so, but I don't need a church to fall on me before I can take a hint. You acted as though you liked him that day you and him came riding into camp."

"I didn't do any such thing, Dick France. I don't like him at all," very decidedly.

"All the boys do-- all but Jed. I don't reckon he does."

"Do I have to like him because the boys do?" she demanded.

"O' course not." Dick stopped, trying to puzzle it out. "He says you ain't to blame, that he lied to you. That seems right strange, too. It ain't like Steve to lie."

"How do you know so much about him? You haven't known him a week."

"That's what Jed says. I say it ain't a question of time. Some men I've knew ten years I ain't half so sure of. He's a man from the ground up. Any one could tell that, before they had seen him five minutes "

Secretly, the girl was greatly pleased. She so wanted to believe that Dick was right. It was what she herself had thought.

"I wish you'd seen him the day he pulled Siegfried out of Lost Creek. Tell you, I thought they were both goners," Dick continued.

"I expect it was most ankle-deep," she scoffed. "Hello, we're past Bald Knob!"

"They both came mighty nigh handing in their checks."

"I didn't know that, though I knew, of course, he was fearless," Arlie said.

"What's that?" Dick drew in his horse sharply, and looked back.

The sound of a rifle shot echoed from hillside to hillside. Like a streak of light, the girl's pinto flashed past him. He heard her give a sobbing cry of anguish. Then he saw that Steve was slipping very slowly from his saddle.

A second shot rang out. The light was beginning to fail, but he made out a man's figure crouched among the small pines on the shoulder of Bald Knob. Dick jerked out his revolver as he rode back, and fired twice. He was quite out of pistol range, but he wanted the man in ambush to see that help was at hand. He saw Arlie fling herself from her pony in time to support the Texan just as he sank to the ground.

"She'll take care of Steve. It's me for that murderer," the young man thought.

Acting upon that impulse, he slid from his horse and slipped into the sagebrush of the hillside. By good fortune he was wearing a gray shirt of a shade which melted into that of the underbrush. Night falls swiftly in the mountains, and already dusk was softly spreading itself over the hills.

Dick went up a draw, where young pines huddled together in the trough; and from the upper end of this he emerged upon a steep ridge, eyes and ears alert for the least sign of human presence. A third shot had rung out while he was in the dense mass of foliage of the evergreens, but now silence lay heavy all about him. The gathering darkness blurred detail, so that any one of a dozen bowlders might be a shield for a crouching man.

Once, nerves at a wire edge from the strain on him, he thought he saw a moving figure. Throwing up his gun, he fired quickly. But he must have been mistaken, for, shortly afterward, he heard some one crashing through dead brush at a distance.

"He's on the run, whoever he is. Guess I'll get back to Steve," decided France wisely.

He found his friend stretched on the ground, with his head in Arlie's lap.

"Is it very bad?" he asked the girl.

"I don't know. There's no light. Whatever shall we do?" she moaned.

"I'm a right smart of a nuisance, ain't I?" drawled the wounded man unexpectedly.

She leaned forward quickly. "Where are you hit?"

"In the shoulder, ma'am."

"Can you ride, Steve? Do you reckon you could make out the five miles?" Dick asked.

Arlie answered for him. She had felt the inert weight of his heavy body and knew that he was beyond helping himself. "No. Is there no house near? There's Alec Howard's cabin."

"He's at the round-up, but I guess we had better take Steve there-- if we could make out to get him that far."

The girl took command quietly. "Unsaddle Teddy."

She had unloosened his shirt and was tying her silk kerchief over the wound, from which blood was coming in little jets.

"We can't carry him," she decided. "It's too far. We'll have to lift him to the back of the horse, and let him lie there. Steady, Dick. That's right. You must hold him on, while I lead the horse."

Heavy as he was, they somehow hoisted him, and started. He had fainted again, and hung limply, with his face buried in the mane of the pony. It seemed an age before the cabin loomed, shadow-like, out of the darkness. They found the door unlocked, as usual, and carried him in to the bed.

"Give me your knife, Dick," Arlie ordered quietly. "And I want water. If that's a towel over there, bring it."

"Just a moment. I'll strike a light, and we'll see where we're at."

"No. We'll have to work in the dark. A light might bring them down on us." She had been cutting the band of the shirt, and now ripped it so as to expose the wounded shoulder.

Dick took a bucket to the creek, and presently returned with it. In his right hand he carried his revolver. When he reached the cabin he gave an audible sigh of relief and quickly locked the door.

"Of course you'll have to go for help, Dick. Bring old Doc Lee."

"Why, Arlie, I can't leave you here alone. What are you talking about?"

"You'll have to. It's the only thing to do. You'll have to give me your revolver. And, oh, Dick, don't lose a moment on the way."

He was plainly troubled. "I just can't leave you here alone, girl. What would your father say if anything happened? I don't reckon anything will, but we can't tell. No, I'll stay here, too. Steve must take his chance."

"You'll not stay." She flamed round upon him, with the fierce passion of a tigress fighting for her young. "You'll go this minute-- this very minute!"

"But don't you see I oughtn't to leave you? Anybody would tell you that," he pleaded.

"And you call yourself his friend," she cried, in a low, bitter voice.

"I call myself yours, too," he made answer doggedly.

"Then go. Go this instant. You'll go, anyway; but if you're my friend, you'll go gladly, and bring help to save us both."

"I wisht I knew what to do," he groaned.

Her palms fastened on his shoulders. She was a creature transformed. Such bravery, such feminine ferocity, such a burning passion of the spirit, was altogether outside of his experience of her or any other woman. He could no more resist her than he could fly to the top of Bald Knob.

"I'll go, Arlie."

"And bring help soon. Get Doc Lee here soon as you can. Leave word for armed men to follow. Don't wait for them."

"No."

"Take his Teddy horse. It can cover ground faster than yours,"

"Yes."

With plain misgivings, he left her, and presently she heard the sound of his galloping horse. It seemed to her for a moment as if she must call him back, but she strangled the cry in her throat. She locked the door and bolted it, then turned back to the bed, upon which the wounded man was beginning to moan in his delirium.