Part II. The Girl of Lost Valley
Chapter XII. The Dance
 

The day after Fraser changed his quarters, Dick France rode up to the Howard ranch. Without alighting, he nodded casually to Alec, and then to his guest.

"Hello, Steve! How's the shoulder?"

"Fine and dandy."

"You moved, I see." The puncher grinned.

"If you see it for yourself, I'll not attempt to deny it."

"Being stood in the corner some more, looks like! Little Willie been telling some more lies?"

"Come in, Dick, and I'll put you wise."

Steve went over the story again. When he mentioned the Squaw Creek raid, he observed that his two friends looked quickly at each other and then away. He saw, however, that Dick took his pledge in regard to the raiders at face value, without the least question of doubt. He made only one comment on the situation.

"If Jed has served notice that he's going after you, Steve, he'll ce'tainly back the play. What's more, he won't be any too particular how he gets you, just so he gets you. He may come a-shooting in the open. Then, again, he may not. All according to how the notion strikes him."

"That's about it," agreed Howard.

"While it's fresh on my mind, I'll unload some more comfort. You've got an enemy in this valley you don't know about."

"The one that shot me?"

"I ain't been told that. I was to say, 'One enemy more than he knows of.' "

"Who told you to say it?"

"I was to forget to tell you that, Steve."

"Then I must have a friend more than I know of, too."

"I ain't so sure about that. You might call her a hostile friend."

"It's a lady, then. I can guess who."

"Honest, I didn't mean to tell you, Steve. It slipped out."

"I won't hold it against you."

"She sent for me last night, and this morning I dropped round. Now, what do you reckon she wanted with me?"

"Give it up."

"I'm to take a day off and ride around among the boys, so as to see them before Jed does. I'm to load 'em up with misrepresentations about how you and the sheriff happen to be working in cahoots. I gathered that the lady is through with you, but she don't want your scalp collected by the boys."

"I'm learning to be thankful for small favors," Fraser said dryly. "She figures me up a skunk, but hates to have me massacreed in her back yard. Ain't that about it, Dick?"

"Somewheres betwixt and between," France nodded. "Say, you lads going to the dance at Millikan's?"

"Didn't know there was one."

"Sure. Big doings. Monday night. Always have a dance after the spring round-up. Jed and his friends will be there-- that ought to fetch you!" Dick grinned.

"I haven't noticed any pressing invitation to my address yet," said Steve.

"I'm extending it right now. Millikan told me to pass the word among the boys. Everybody and his neighbor invited." Dick lit a cigar, and gathered up his reins. "So-long, boys. I got to be going." Over his shoulder he fired another joyous shot as he cantered away. "I reckon that hostile friend will be there, too, Steve, if that's any inducement."

Whether it was an inducement is not a matter of record, but certain it is that the Texan found it easy to decide to go. Everybody in the valley would be there, and absence on his part would be construed as weakness, even as a confession of guilt. He had often observed that a man's friends are strong for him only when he is strong for himself.

Howard and his guest drove to Millikan's Draw, for the wound of the latter was still too new to stand so long a horseback ride. They arrived late, and the dance was already in full swing. As they stabled and fed the team, they could hear the high notes of the fiddles and the singsong chant of the caller.

"Alemane left. Right han' t'yer pardner, an' gran' right and left. Ev-v-rybody swing."

The ranch house was a large one, the most pretentious in the valley. A large hall opened into a living room and a dining room, by means of large double doors, which had been drawn back, so as to make one room of them.

As they pushed their way through the crowd of rough young fellows who clustered round the door, as if afraid their escape might be cut off, Fraser observed that the floor was already crowded with dancers.

The quadrille came to an end as he arrived, and, after they had seated their partners, red-faced perspiring young punchers swelled the knot around the door.

Alec stayed to chaff with them, while the Texan sauntered across the floor and took a seat on one of the benches which lined the walls. As he did so, a man and his partner, so busy in talk with each other that they had not observed who he was, sat down beside him in such position that the young woman was next him. Without having looked directly at either of them, Fraser knew that the girl was Arlie Dillon, and her escort Jed Briscoe. She had her back half turned toward him, so that, even after she was seated she did not recognize her neighbor.

Steve smiled pleasantly, and became absorbed in a rather noisy bout of repartee going on between one swain and his lass, not so absorbed, however, as not to notice that he and his unconscious neighbors were becoming a covert focus of attention. He had already noticed a shade of self-consciousness in the greeting of those whom he met, a hint of a suggestion that he was on trial. Among some this feeling was evidently more pronounced. He met more than one pair of eyes that gave back to his genial nod cold hostility.

At such an affair as this, Jed Briscoe was always at his best. He was one of the few men in the valley who knew how to waltz well, and music and rhythm always brought out in him a gay charm women liked. His lithe grace, his assurance, his ease of manner and speech, always differentiated him from the other ranchmen.

No wonder rumor had coupled his name with that of Arlie as her future husband. He knew how to make light love by implication, to skate around the subject skilfully and boldly with innuendo and suggestion.

Arlie knew him for what he was-- a man passionate and revengeful, the leader of that side of the valley's life which she deplored. She did not trust him. Nevertheless, she felt his fascination. He made that appeal to her which a graceless young villain often does to a good woman who lets herself become interested in trying to understand the sinner and his sins. There was another reason why just now she showed him special favor. She wanted to blunt the edge of his anger against the Texan ranger, though her reason for this she did not admit even to herself.

She had-- oh, she was quite sure of this-- no longer any interest in Fraser except the impersonal desire to save his life. Having thought it all over, she was convinced that her friends had nothing to fear from him as a spy. That was what he had tried to tell her when she would not listen.

Deep in her heart she knew why she had not listened. It had to do with that picture of a pretty girl smiling up happily into his eyes-- a thing she had not forgotten for one waking moment since. Like a knife the certainty had stabbed her heart that they were lovers. Her experience had been limited. Kodaks had not yet reached Lost Valley as common possessions. In the mountains no girl had her photograph taken beside a man unless they had a special interest in each other. And the manner of these two had implied the possession of a secret not known to the world.

So Arlie froze her heart toward the Texan, all the more because he had touched her girlish imagination to sweet hidden dreams of which her innocence had been unnecessarily ashamed. He had spoken no love to her, nor had he implied it exactly. There had been times she had thought something more than friendship lay under his warm smile. But now she scourged herself for her folly, believed she had been unmaidenly, and set her heart to be like flint against him. She had been ready to give him what he had not wanted. Before she would let him guess it she would rather die, a thousand times rather, she told herself passionately.

She presently became aware that attention was being directed toward her and Jed and somebody who sat on the other side of her. Without looking round, she mentioned the fact in a low voice to her partner of the dance just finished. Jed looked up, and for the first time observed the man behind her. Instantly the gayety was sponged from his face.

"Who is it?" she asked.

"That man from Texas."

Arlie felt the blood sting her cheeks. The musicians were just starting a waltz. She leaned slightly toward Jed, and said, in a low voice:

"Did you ask me to dance this with you?"

He had not, but he did now. He got to his feet, with shining eyes, and whirled her off. The girl did not look toward the Texan. Nevertheless, as they circled the room, she was constantly aware of him. Sitting there, with a smile on his strong face, apparently unperturbed, he gave no hint of the stern fact that he was circled by enemies, any one of whom might carry his death in a hip pocket. His gaze was serene, unabashed, even amused.

The young woman was irritably suspicious that he found her anger amusing, just as he seemed to find the dangerous position in which he was placed. Yet her resentment coexisted with a sympathy for him that would not down. She believed he was marked for death by a coterie of those present, chief of whom was the man smiling down into her face from half-shut, smouldering eyes.

Her heart was a flame of protest against their decree, all the more so because she held herself partly responsible for it. In a panic of repentance, she had told Dick of her confession to the ranger of the names of the Squaw Creek raiders, and France had warned his confederates. He had done this, not because he distrusted Fraser, but because he felt it was their due to get a chance to escape if they wanted to do so.

Always a creature of impulse, Arlie had repented her repentance when too late. Now she would have fought to save the Texan, but the horror of it was that she could not guess how the blow would fall. She tried to believe he was safe, at least until the week was up.

When Dick strolled across the floor, sat down beside Steve, and began casually to chat with him, she could have thanked the boy with tears. It was equivalent to a public declaration of his intentions. At least, the ranger was not friendless. One of the raiders was going to stand by him. Besides Dick, he might count on Howard; perhaps on others.

Jed was in high good humor. All along the line he seemed to be winning. Arlie had discarded this intruder from Texas and was showing herself very friendly to the cattleman. The suspicion of Fraser which he had disseminated was bearing fruit; and so, more potently, was the word the girl had dropped incautiously. He had only to wait in order to see his rival wiped out. So that, when Arlie put in her little plea, he felt it would not cost him anything to affect a large generosity.

"Let him go, Jed. He is discredited. Folks are all on their guard before him now. He can't do any harm here. Dick says he is only waiting out his week because of your threat. Don't make trouble. Let him sneak back home, like a whipped cur," she begged.

"I don't want any trouble with him, girl. All I ask is that he leave the valley. Let Dick arrange that, and I'll give him a chance."

She thanked him, with a look that said more than words.

It was two hours later, when she was waltzing with Jed again, that Arlie caught sight of a face that disturbed her greatly. It was a countenance disfigured by a ragged scar, running from the bridge of the nose. She had last seen it gazing into the window of Alec Howard's cabin on a certain never-to-be-forgotten night.

"Who is that man-- the one leaning against the door jamb, just behind Slim Leroy?" she asked.

"He's a fellow that calls himself Johnson. His real name is Struve," Jed answered carelessly.

"He's the man that shot the Texas lieutenant," she said.

"I dare say. He's got a good reason for shooting him. The man broke out of the Arizona penitentiary, and Fraser came north to rearrest him. At least, that's my guess. He wouldn't have been here to-night if he hadn't figured Fraser too sick to come. Watch him duck when he learns the ranger's here."

At the first opportunity Arlie signaled to Dick that she wanted to see him. Fraser, she observed, was no longer in the dancing rooms. Dick took her out from the hot room to the porch.

"Let's walk a little, Dick. I want to tell you something."

They sauntered toward the fine grove of pines that ran up the hillside back of the house.

"Did you notice that man with the scar, Dick?" she presently asked.

"Yes. I ain't seen him before. Must be one of the Rabbit Run guys, I take it."

"I've seen him. He's the man that shot your friend. He was the man I shot at when he looked in the window,"

"Sure, Arlie?"

"Dead sure, Dick. He's an escaped convict, and he has a grudge at your friend. He is afraid of him, too. Look out for Lieutenant Fraser to-night. Don't let him wander around outside. If he does, there may be murder done."

Even as she spoke, there came a sound from the wooded hillside-- the sound of a stifled cry, followed by an imprecation and the heavy shuffling of feet.

"Listen, Dick!"

For an instant he listened. Then: "There's trouble in the grove, and I'm not armed," he cried.

"Never mind! Go-- go!" she shrieked, pushing him forward.

For herself, she turned, and ran like a deer for the house.

Siegfried was sitting on the porch, whittling a stick.

"They-- they're killing Steve-- in the grove," she panted.

Without a word he rolled off, like a buffalo cow, toward the scene of action.

Arlie pushed into the house and called for Jed.