A Texas Ranger by William MacLeod Raine
Part II. The Girl of Lost Valley
Chapter X. Doc Lee
Arlie knew nothing of wounds or their treatment. All she could do was to wash the shoulder in cold water and bind it with strips torn from her white underskirt. When his face and hands grew hot with the fever, she bathed them with a wet towel. How badly he was hurt-- whether he might not even die before Dick's return-- she had no way of telling. His inconsequent babble at first frightened her, for she had never before seen a person in delirium, nor heard of the insistence with which one harps upon some fantasy seized upon by a diseased mind.
"She thinks you're a skunk, Steve. So you are. She's dead right-- dead right-- dead right. You lied to her, you coyote! Stand up in the corner, you liar, while she whangs at you with a six-gun! You're a skunk-- dead right."
So he would run on in a variation of monotony, the strong, supple, masterful man as helpless as a child, all the splendid virility stricken from him by the pressure of an enemy's finger. The eyes that she had known so full of expression, now like half-scabbarded steel, and now again bubbling from the inner mirth of him, were glazed and unmeaning. The girl had felt in him a capacity for silent self-containment; and here he was, picking at the coverlet with restless fingers, prattling foolishly, like an infant.
She was a child of impulse, sensitive and plastic. Because she had been hard on him before he was struck down, her spirit ran open-armed to make amends. What manner of man he was she did not know. But what availed that to keep her, a creature of fire and dew, from the clutch of emotions strange and poignant? He had called himself a liar and a coyote, yet she knew it was not true, or at worst, true in some qualified sense. He might be hard, reckless, even wicked in some ways. But, vaguely, she felt that if he were a sinner he sinned with self-respect. He was in no moral collapse, at least. It was impossible to fit him to her conception of a spy. No, no! Anything but that!
So she sat there, her fingers laced about her knee, as she leaned forward to wait upon the needs she could imagine for him, the dumb tragedy of despair in her childish face.
The situation was one that made for terror. To be alone with a wounded man, his hurt undressed, to hear his delirium and not to know whether he might not die any minute-- this would have been enough to cause apprehension. Add to it the darkness, her deep interest in him, the struggle of her soul, and the dread of unseen murder stalking in the silent night.
Though her thought was of him, it was not wholly upon him. She sat where she could watch the window, Dick's revolver in another chair beside her. It was a still, starry night, and faintly she could see the hazy purple, mountain line. Somewhere beneath those uncaring stars was the man who had done this awful thing. Was he far, or was he near? Would he come to make sure he had not failed? Her fearful heart told her that he would come.
She must have fought her fears nearly an hour before she heard the faintest of sounds outside. Her hand leaped to the revolver. She sat motionless, listening, with nerves taut. It came again presently, a deadened footfall, close to the door. Then, after an eternity, the latch clicked softly. Some one, with infinite care, was trying to discover whether the door was locked.
His next move she anticipated. Her eyes fastened on the window, while she waited breathlessly. Her heart was stammering furiously. Moments passed, in which she had to set her teeth to keep from screaming aloud. The revolver was shaking so that she had to steady the barrel with her left hand. A shadow crossed one pane, the shadow of a head in profile, and pushed itself forward till shoulders, arm, and poised revolver covered the lower sash. Very, very slowly the head itself crept into sight.
Arlie fired and screamed simultaneously. The thud of a fall, the scuffle of a man gathering himself to his feet again, the rush of retreating steps, all merged themselves in one single impression of fierce, exultant triumph.
Her only regret was that she had not killed him. She was not even sure that she had hit him, for her bullet had gone through the glass within an inch of the inner woodwork. Nevertheless, she knew that he had had a shock that would carry him far. Unless he had accomplices with him-- and of that there had been no evidence at the time of the attack from Bald Knob-- he would not venture another attempt. Of one thing she was sure. The face that had looked in at the window was one she had never seen before, In this, too, she found relief-- for she knew now that the face she had expected to see follow the shadow over the pane had been that of Jed Briscoe; and Jed had too much of the courage of Lucifer incarnate in him to give up because an unexpected revolver had been fired in his face.
Time crept slowly, but it could hardly have been a quarter of an hour later that she heard the galloping of horses.
"It is Dick!" she cried joyfully, and, running to the door, she unbolted and unlocked it just as France dragged Teddy to a halt and flung himself to the ground.
The young man gave a shout of gladness at sight of her.
"Is it all right, Arlie?"
"Yes. That is-- I don't know. He is delirious. A man came to the window, and I shot at him. Oh, Dick, I'm so glad you're back."
In her great joy, she put her arms round his neck and kissed him. Old Doctor Lee, dismounting more leisurely, drawled his protest.
"Look-a-here, Arlie. I'm the doctor. Where do I come in?"
"I'll kiss you, too, when you tell me he'll get well." The half-hysterical laugh died out of her voice, and she caught him fiercely by the arm. "Doc, doc, don't let him die," she begged.
He had known her all her life, had been by the bedside when she came into the world, and he put his arm round her shoulders and gave her a little hug as they passed into the room.
"We'll do our level best, little girl."
She lit a lamp, and drew the window curtain, so that none could see from the outside. While the old doctor arranged his instruments and bandages on chairs, she waited on him. He noticed how white she was, for he said, not unkindly:
"I don't want two patients right now, Arlie. If you're going to keel over in a faint right in the middle of it, I'll have Dick help."
"No, no, I won't, doc. Truly, I won't," she promised.
"All right, little girl. We'll see how game you are. Dick, hold the light. Hold it right there. See?"
The Texan had ceased talking, and was silent, except for a low moan, repeated at regular intervals. The doctor showed Arlie how to administer the anaesthetic after he had washed the wound. While he was searching for the bullet with his probe she flinched as if he had touched a bare nerve, but she stuck to her work regardless of her feelings, until the lead was found and extracted and the wound dressed.
Afterward, Dick found her seated on a rock outside crying hysterically. He did not attempt to cope with the situation, but returned to the house and told Lee.
"Best thing for her. Her nerves are overwrought and unstrung. She'll be all right, once she has her cry out. I'll drift around, and jolly her along."
The doctor presently came up and took a seat beside her.
"Wha-- what do you think, doctor?" she sobbed.
"Well, I think it's tarnation hot operating with a big kerosene lamp six inches from your haid," he said, as he mopped his forehead.
"I mean-- will he-- get well?"
Lee snorted. "Well, I'd be ashamed of him if he didn't. If he lets a nice, clean, flesh wound put him out of business he don't deserve to live. Don't worry any about him, young lady. Say, I wish I had zwei beer right now, Arlie."
"You mean it? You're not just saying it to please me?"
"Of course, I mean it," he protested indignantly. "I wish I had three."
"I mean, are you sure he'll get well?" she explained, a faint smile touching her wan face.
"Yes, I mean that, too, but right now I mean the beer most. Now, honest, haven't I earned a beer?"
"You've earned a hundred thousand, doc. You're the kindest and dearest man that ever lived," she cried.
"Ain't that rather a large order, my dear?" he protested mildly. "I couldn't really use a hundred thousand. And I'd hate to be better than Job and Moses and Pharaoh and them Bible characters. Wouldn't I have to give up chewing? Somehow, a halo don't seem to fit my haid. It's most too bald to carry one graceful.... You may do that again if you want to." This last, apropos of the promised reward which had just been paid in full.
Arlie found she could manage a little laugh by this time.
"Well, if you ain't going to, we might as well go in and have a look at that false-alarm patient of ours," he continued. "We'll have to sit up all night with him. I was sixty-three yesterday. I'm going to quit this doctor game. I'm too old to go racing round the country nights just because you young folks enjoy shooting each other up. Yes, ma'am, I'm going to quit. I serve notice right here. What's the use of having a good ranch and some cattle if you can't enjoy them?"
As the doctor had been serving notice of his intention to quit doctoring for over ten years, Arlie did not take him too seriously. She knew him for what he was-- a whimsical old fellow, who would drop in the saddle before he would let a patient suffer; one of the old school, who loved his work but liked to grumble over it.
"Maybe you'll be able to take a rest soon. You know that young doctor from Denver, who was talking about settling here----"
This, as she knew, was a sore point with him. "So you're tired of me, are you? Want a new-fangled appendix cutter from Denver, do you? Time to shove old Doc Lee aside, eh?"
"I didn't say that, doc," she repented.
"Huh! You meant it. Wonder how many times he'd get up at midnight and plow through three-foot snow for six miles to see the most ungrateful, squalling little brat----"
"Was it me, doc?" she ungrammatically demanded.
"It was you, Miss Impudence."
They had reached the door, but she held him there a moment, while she laughed delightedly and hugged him. "I knew it was me. As if we'd let our old doc go, or have anything to do with a young ignoramus from Denver! Didn't you know I was joking? Of course you did."
He still pretended severity. "Oh, I know you. When it comes to wheedling an old fool, you've got the rest of the girls in this valley beat to a fare-you-well."
"Is that why you always loved me?" she asked, with a sparkle of mischief in her eye.
"I didn't love you. I never did. The idea!" he snorted. "I don't know what you young giddy pates are coming to. Huh! Love you!"
"I'll forgive you, even if you did," she told him sweetly.
"That's it! That's it!" he barked. "You forgive all the young idiots when they do. And they all do-- every last one of them. But I'm too old for you, young lady. Sixty-three yesterday. Huh!"
"I like you better than the younger ones."
"Want us all, do you? Young and old alike. Well, count me out."
He broke away, and went into the house. But there was an unconquerably youthful smile dancing in his eyes. This young lady and he had made love to each other in some such fashion ever since she had been a year old. He was a mellow and confirmed old bachelor, but he proposed to continue their innocent coquetry until he was laid away, no matter which of the young bucks of the valley had the good fortune to win her for a wife.