Part II. The Girl of Lost Valley
Chapter XI. The Fat in the Fire
 

For two days Fraser remained in the cabin of the stockman Howard, France making it his business to see that the place was never left unguarded for a moment. At the end of that time the fever had greatly abated, and he was doing so well that Doctor Lee decided it would be better to move him to the Dillon ranch for the convenience of all parties.

This was done, and the patient continued steadily to improve. His vigorous constitution, helped by the healthy, clean, outdoor life he had led, stood him in good stead. Day by day he renewed the blood he had lost. Soon he was eating prodigious dinners, and between meals was drinking milk with an egg beaten in it.

On a sunny forenoon, when he lay in the big window of the living room, reading a magazine, Arlie entered, a newspaper in her hand. Her eyes were strangely bright, even for her, and she had a manner of repressed excitement, Her face was almost colorless.

"Here's some more in the Avalanche about our adventure near Gimlet Butte," she told him, waving the paper.

"Nothing like keeping in the public eye," said Steve, grinning. "I don't reckon our little picnic at Bald Knob is likely to get in the Avalanche, though. It probably hasn't any correspondent at Lost Valley. Anyhow, I'm hoping not."

"Mr. Fraser, there is something in this paper I want you to explain. But tell me first when it was you shot this man Faulkner. I mean at just what time in the fight."

"Why, I reckon it must have been just before I ducked."

"That's funny, too." She fixed her direct, fearless gaze on him. "The evidence at the coroner's jury shows that it was in the early part of the fight he was shot, before father and I left you."

"No, that couldn't have been, Miss Arlie, because----"

"Because----" she prompted, smiling at him in a peculiar manner.

He flushed, and could only say that the newspapers were always getting things wrong.

"But this is the evidence at the coroner's inquest," she said, falling grave again on the instant. "I understand one thing now, very clearly, and that is that Faulkner was killed early in the fight, and the other man was wounded in the ankle near the finish."

He shook his head obstinately. "No, I reckon not."

"Yet it is true. What's more, you knew it all the time."

"You ce'tainly jump to conclusions, Miss Arlie."

"And you let them arrest you, without telling them the truth! And they came near lynching you! And there's a warrant out now for your arrest for the murder of Faulkner, while all the time I killed him, and you knew it!"

He gathered together his lame defense. "You run ahaid too fast for me, ma'am. Supposing he was hit while we were all there together, how was I to know who did it?"

"You knew it couldn't have been you, for he wasn't struck with a revolver. It couldn't have been dad, since he had his shotgun loaded with buckshot."

"What difference did it make?" he wanted to know impatiently. "Say I'd have explained till kingdom come that I borrowed the rifle from a friend five minutes after Faulkner was hit-- would anybody have believed me? Would it have made a bit of difference?"

Her shining eyes were more eloquent than a thousand tongues. "I don't say it would, but there was always the chance. You didn't take it. You would have let them hang you, without speaking the word that brought me into it. Why?"

"I'm awful obstinate when I get my back up," he smiled.

"That wasn't it. You did it to save a girl you had never seen but once. I want to know why."

"All right. Have it your own way. But don't ask me to explain the whyfors. I'm no Harvard professor."

"I know," she said softly. She was not looking at him, but out of the window, and there were tears in her voice.

"Sho! Don't make too much of it. We'll let it go that I ain't all coyote, after all. But that don't entitle me to any reward of merit. Now, don't you cry, Miss Arlie. Don't you."

She choked back the tears, and spoke in deep self-scorn. "No! You don't deserve anything except what you've been getting from me-- suspicion and distrust and hard words! You haven't done anything worth speaking of-- just broke into a quarrel that wasn't yours, at the risk of your life; then took it on your shoulders to let us escape; and, afterward, when you were captured, refused to drag me in, because I happen to be a girl! But it's not worth mentioning that you did all this for strangers, and that later you did not tell even me, because you knew it would trouble me that I had killed him, though in self-defense. And to think that all the time I've been full of hateful suspicions about you! Oh, you don't know how I despise myself!"

She let her head fall upon her arm on the table, and sobbed.

Fraser, greatly disturbed, patted gently the heavy coil of blue-black hair.

"Now, don't you, Arlie; don't you. I ain't worth it. Honest, I ain't. I did what it was up to me to do. Not a thing more. Dick would have done it. Any of the boys would. Now, let's look at what you've done for me."

From under the arm a muffled voice insisted she had done nothing but suspect him.

"Hold on, girl. Play fair. First off you ride sixty miles to help me when I'm hunted right hard. You bring me to your home in this valley where strangers ain't over and above welcome just now. You learn I'm an officer and still you look out for me and fight for me, till you make friends for me. It's through you I get started right with the boys. On your say-so they give me the glad hand. You learn I've lied to you, and two or three hours later you save my life. You sit there steady, with my haid in your lap, while some one is plugging away at us. You get me to a house, take care of my wounds, and hold the fort alone in the night till help comes. Not only that, but you drive my enemy away. Later, you bring me home, and nurse me like I was a long-lost brother. What I did for you ain't in the same class with what you've done for me."

"But I was suspicious of you all the time."

"So you had a right to be. That ain't the point, which is that a girl did all that for a man she thought might be an enemy and a low-down spy. Men are expected to take chances like I did, but girls ain't. You took 'em. If I lived a thousand years, I couldn't tell you all the thanks I feel."

"Ah! It makes it worse that you're that kind of a man. But I'm going to show you whether I trust you." Her eyes were filled with the glad light of her resolve. She spoke with a sort of proud humility. "Do you know, there was a time when I thought you might have-- I didn't really believe it, but I thought it just possible-- that you might have come here to get evidence against the Squaw Creek raiders? You'll despise me, but it's the truth."

His face lost color. "And now?" he asked quietly.

"Now? I would as soon suspect my father-- or myself! I'll show you what I think. The men in it were Jed Briscoe and Yorky and Dick France "Stop," he cried hoarsely.

"Is it your wound?" she said quickly.

"No. That's all right. But you musn't tell----"

"I'm telling, to show whether I trust you. Jed and Yorky and Dick and Slim----"

She stopped to listen. Her father's voice was calling her. She rose from her seat.

"Wait a moment. There's something I've got to tell you," the Texan groaned.

"I'll be back in a moment. Dad wants to see me about some letters."

And with that she was gone. Whatever the business was, it detained her longer than she expected. The minutes slipped away, and still she did not return. A step sounded in the hall, a door opened, and Jed Briscoe stood before him.

"You're here, are you?" he said.

The Texan measured looks with him. "Yes, I'm here."

"Grand-standing still, I reckon."

"If you could only learn to mind your own affairs," the Texan suggested evenly.

"You'll wish I could before I'm through with you."

"Am I to thank you for that little courtesy from Bald Knob the other evening?"

"Not directly. At three hundred yards, I could have shot a heap straighter than that. The fool must have been drunk."

"You'll have to excuse him. It was beginning to get dark. His intentions were good."

There was a quick light step behind him, and Arlie came into the room. She glanced quickly from one to the other, and there was apprehension in her look.

"I've come to see Lieutenant Fraser on business," Briscoe explained, with an air patently triumphant.

Arlie made no offer to leave the room. "He's hardly up to business yet, is he?" she asked, as carelessly as she could.

"Then we'll give it another name. I'm making a neighborly call to ask how he is, and to return some things he lost."

Jed's hand went into his pocket and drew forth leisurely a photograph. This he handed to Arlie right side up, smiling the while, with a kind of masked deviltry.

"Found it in Alec Howard's cabin. Seems your coat was hanging over the back of a chair, lieutenant, and this and a paper fell out. One of the boys must have kicked it to one side, and it was overlooked. Later, I ran across it. So I'm bringing it back to you."

In spite of herself Arlie's eyes fell to the photograph. It was a snapshot of the ranger and a very attractive young woman. They were smiling into each other's eyes with a manner of perfect and friendly understanding. To see it gave Arlie a pang. Flushing at her mistake, she turned the card over and handed it to the owner.

"Sorry. I looked without thinking," she said in a low voice.

Fraser nodded his acceptance of her apology, but his words and his eyes were for his enemy. "You mentioned something else you had found, seems to me."

Behind drooping eyelids Jed was malevolently feline. "Seems to me I did."

From his pocket came slowly a folded paper. He opened and looked it over at leisure before his mocking eyes lifted again to the wounded man. "This belongs to you, too, but I know you'll excuse me if I keep it to show to the boys before returning it."

"So you've read it," Arlie broke in scornfully.

He grinned at her, and nodded. "Yes, I've read it, my dear. I had to read it, to find out whose it was. Taken by and large, it's a right interesting document, too."

He smiled at the ranger maliciously, yet with a certain catlike pleasure in tormenting his victim. Arlie began to feel a tightening of her throat, a sinking of the heart. But Fraser looked at the man with a quiet, scornful steadfastness. He knew what was coming, and had decided upon his course.

"Seems to be a kind of map, lieutenant. Here's Gimlet Butte and the Half Way House and Sweetwater Dam and the blasted pine. Looks like it might be a map from the Butte to this part of the country. Eh, Mr. Fraser from Texas?"

"And if it is?"

"Then I should have to ask you how you come by it, seeing as the map is drawn on Sheriff Brandt's official stationery," Jed rasped swiftly.

"I got it from Sheriff Brandt, Mr. Briscoe, since you want to know. You're not entitled to the information, but I'll make you a gift of it. He gave it to me to guide me here."

Even Briscoe was taken aback. He had expected evasion, denial, anything but a bold acceptance of his challenge. His foe watched the wariness settle upon him by the narrowing of his eyes.

"So the sheriff knew you were coming?"

"Yes."

"I thought you broke jail. That was the story I had dished up to me."

"I did, with the help of the sheriff."

"Oh, with the help of the sheriff? Come to think of it, that sounds right funny-- a sheriff helping his prisoner to escape."

"Yet it is true, as it happens."

"I don't doubt it, lieutenant. Fact is, I had some such notion all the time. Now, I wonder why-for he took so friendly an interest in you."

"I had a letter of introduction to him from a friend in Texas. When he knew who I was, he decided he couldn't afford to have me lynched without trying to save me."

"I see. And the map?"

"This was the only part of the country in which I would be safe from capture. He knew I had a claim on some of the Cedar Mountain people, because it was to help them I had got into trouble."

"Yes, I can see that." Arlie nodded quickly. "Of course, that is just what the sheriff would think."

"Folks can always see what they want to, Arlie," Jed commented. "Now, I can't see all that, by a lot."

"It isn't necessary you should, Mr. Briscoe," Fraser retorted.

"Or else I see a good deal more, lieutenant," Jed returned, with his smooth smile. "Mebbe the sheriff helped you on your way because you're such a good detective. He's got ambitions, Brandt has. So has Hilliard, the prosecuting attorney. Happen to see him, by the way?"

"Yes."

Jed nodded. "I figured you had. Yes, it would be Hilliard worked the scheme out, I expect."

"You're a good deal of a detective yourself, Mr. Briscoe," the Texan laughed hardily. "Perhaps I could get you a job in the rangers."

"There may be a vacancy there soon," Jed agreed.

"What's the use of talking that way, Jed? Are you threatening Mr. Fraser? If anything happens to him, I'll remember this," Arlie told him.

"Have I mentioned any threats, Arlie? It is well known that Lieutenant Fraser has enemies here. It don't take a prophet to tell that, after what happened the other night."

"Any more than it takes a prophet to tell that you are one of them."

"I play my own hand. I don't lie down before him, or any other man. He'd better not get in my way, unless he's sure he's a better man than I am."

"But he isn't in your way," Arlie insisted. "He has told a plain story. I believe every word of it."

"I notice he didn't tell any of his plain story until we proved it on him. He comes through with his story after he's caught with the goods. Don't you know that every criminal that is caught has a smooth explanation?"

"I haven't any doubt Mr. Briscoe will have one when his turn comes," the ranger remarked.

Jed wheeled on him. His eyes glittered menace. "You've said one word too much. I'll give you forty-eight hours to get out of this valley."

"How dare you, Jed-- and in my house!" Arlie cried. "I won't have it. I won't have blood shed between you."

"It's up to him," answered the cattleman, his jaw set like a vise. "Persuade him to git out, and there'll be no blood shed."

"You have no right to ask it of him. You ought not----" She stopped, aware of the futility of urging a moral consideration upon the man, and fell back upon the practical. "He couldn't travel that soon, even if he wanted to. He's not strong enough. You know that."

"All right. We'll call it a week. If he's still here a week from to-day, there will be trouble."

With that, he turned on his heel and left the room. They heard his spurs trailing across the porch and jingling down the steps, after which they caught a momentary vision of him, dark and sinister, as his horse flashed past the window.

The ranger smiled, but rather seriously. "The fat's in the fire now, sure enough, ma'am."

She turned anxiously upon him. "Why did you tell him all that? Why did you let him go away, believing you were here as a spy to trap him and his friends?"

"I let him have the truth. Anyhow, I couldn't have made good with a denial. He had the evidence. I can't keep him from believing what he wants to."

"He'll tell all his friends. He'll exaggerate the facts and stir up sentiment against you. He'll say you came here as a detective, to get evidence against the Squaw Creek raiders." "Then he'll tell the truth!"

She took it in slowly, with a gathering horror. "The truth!" she repeated, almost under her breath. "You don't mean---- You can't mean---- Are you here as a spy upon my friends?"

"I didn't know they were your friends when I took the job. If you'll listen, I'll explain."

Words burst from her in gathering bitterness.

"What is there to explain, sir? The facts cry to heaven. I brought you into this valley, gave you the freedom of our home against my father's first instinct. I introduced you to my friends, and no doubt they told you much you wanted to know. They are simple, honest folks, who don't know a spy when they see one. And I-- fool that I am-- I vouched for you. More, I stood between you and the fate you deserved. And, lastly, in my blind conceit, I have told you the names of the men in the Squaw Creek trouble. If I had only known-- and I had all the evidence, but I was so blind I would not see you were a snake in the grass."

He put out a hand to stop her, and she drew back as if his touch were pollution. From the other side of the room, she looked across at him in bitter scorn.

"I shall make arrangements to have you taken out of the valley at once, sir."

"You needn't take the trouble, Miss Arlie. I'm not going out of the valley. If you'll have me taken to Alec Howard's shack, which is where you brought me from, I'll be under obligations to you."

"Whatever you are, I'm not going to have your blood on my hands. You've got to leave the valley."

"I have to thank you for all your kindness to me. If you'd extend it a trifle further and listen to what I've got to say, I'd be grateful."

"I don't care to hear your excuses. Go quickly, sir, before you meet the end you deserve, and give up the poor men I have betrayed to you." She spoke in a choked voice, as if she could scarce breathe.

"If you'd only listen before you----"

"I've listened to you too long. I was so sure I knew more than my father, than my friends. I'll listen no more."

The Texan gave it up. "All right, ma'am. Just as you say. If you'll order some kind of a rig for me, I'll not trouble you longer. I'm sorry that it's got to be this way. Maybe some time you'll see it different."

"Never," she flashed passionately, and fled from the room.

He did not see her again before he left. Bobbie came to get him in a light road trap they had. The boy looked at him askance, as if he knew something was wrong. Presently they turned a corner and left the ranch shut from sight in a fold of the hills.

At the first division of the road Fraser came to a difference of opinion with Bobbie.

"Arlie said you was going to leave the valley. She told me I was to take you to Speed's place."

"She misunderstood. I am going to Alec Howard's."

"But that ain't what she told me."

Steve took the reins from him, and turned into the trail that led to Howard's place. "You can explain to her, Bobbie, that you couldn't make me see it that way."

An hour later, he descended upon Howard-- a big, rawboned ranchman, who had succumbed quickly to a deep friendship for this "Admirable Crichton" of the plains.

"Hello, Steve! Glad to death to see you. Hope you've come to stay, you old pie eater," he cried joyously, at sight of the Texan.

Fraser got down. "Wait here a moment, Bobbie. I want to have a talk with Alec. I may go on with you."

They went into the cabin, and Fraser sat down. He was still far from strong.

"What's up, Steve?" the rancher asked.

"You asked me to stay, Alec. Before I say whether I will or not, I've got a story to tell you. After I've told it, you can ask me again if you want me to stop with you. If you don't ask me, I'll ride off with the boy."

"All right. Fire ahead, old hoss. I'll ask you fast enough."

The Texan told his story from the beginning. Only one thing he omitted-- that Arlie had told him the name of the Squaw Creek raiders.

"There are the facts, Alec. You've got them from beginning to end. It's up to you. Do you want me here?"

"Before I answer that, I'll have to put a question myse'f, Steve. Why do you want to stay? Why not leave the valley while you're still able to?"

"Because Jed Briscoe put it up to me that I'd got to leave within a week. I'll go when I'm good and ready."

Alec nodded his appreciation of the point. "Sure. You don't want to sneak out, with yore tail betwixt yore laigs. That brings up another question, Steve. What about the Squaw Creek sheep raiders? Just for argument, we'll put it that some of them are my friends. You understand-- just for argument. Are you still aiming to run them down?"

Fraser met his frank question frankly. "No, Alec, I've had to give up that notion long since-- soon as I began to guess they were friends of Miss Arlie. I'm going back to tell Hilliard so. But I ain't going to be run out by Briscoe."

"Good enough. Put her there, son. This shack's yore home till hell freezes over, Steve."

"You haven't any doubts about me, Alec. If you have, better say so now."

"Doubts? I reckon not. Don't I know a man when I see one? I'm plumb surprised at Arlie." He strode to the door, and called to Bobbie: "Roll along home, son. Yore passenger is going to stay a spell with me."

"Of course, I understand what this means, Alec. Jed and his crowd aren't going to be any too well pleased when they learn you have taken me in. They may make you trouble," the ranger said.

The big cow man laughed. "Oh, cut it out, Steve. Jed don't have to O. K. my guest list. Not on yore life. I'm about ready for a ruction with that young man, anyway. He's too blamed bossy. I ain't wearing his brand. Fact is, I been having notions this valley has been suffering from too much Briscoe. Others are sharing that opinion with me. Ask Dick France. Ask Arlie, for that matter."

"I'm afraid I'm off that young lady's list of friends."

"Sho! She'll come round. She's some hot-haided. It always was her way to get mad first, and find out why afterward. But don't make any mistake about her, Steve. She's the salt of the earth, Arlie Dillon is. She figured it out you wasn't playing it quite on the square with her. Onct she's milled it around a spell, she'll see things different. I've knowed her since she was knee-high, and I tell you she's a game little thoroughbred."

The Texan looked at him a moment, then stared out of the window.

"We won't quarrel about that any, Alec. I'll indorse those sentiments, and then some, even if she did call me a snake in the grass."