Part II. The Girl of Lost Valley
Chapter XIII. The Wolf Howls
 

As Steve strolled out into the moonlight, he left behind him the monotonous thumping of heavy feet and the singsong voice of the caller.

         "Birdie fly out,
          Crow hop in,
          Join all hands
         And circle ag'in."

came to him, in the high, strident voice of Lute Perkins. He took a deep breath of fresh, clean air, and looked about him. After the hot, dusty room, the grove, with its green foliage, through which the moonlight filtered, looked invitingly cool. He sauntered forward, climbed the hill up which the wooded patch straggled, and sat down, with his back to a pine.

Behind the valley rampart, he could see the dim, saw-toothed Teton peaks, looking like ghostly shapes in the moonlight. The night was peaceful. Faint and mellow came the sound of jovial romping from the house; otherwise, beneath the distant stars, a perfect stillness held.

How long he sat there, letting thoughts happen dreamily rather than producing them of gray matter, he did not know. A slight sound, the snapping of a twig, brought his mind to alertness without causing the slightest movement of his body.

His first thought was that, in accordance with dance etiquette in the ranch country, his revolver was in its holster under the seat of the trap in which they had driven over. Since his week was not up, he had expected no attack from Jed and his friends. As for the enemy, of whom Arlie had advised him, surely a public dance was the last place to tempt one who apparently preferred to attack from cover. But his instinct was certain. He did not need to look round to know he was trapped.

"I'm unarmed. You'd better come round and shoot me from in front. It will look better at the inquest," he said quietly.

"Don't move. You're surrounded," a voice answered.

A rope snaked forward and descended over the ranger's head, to be jerked tight, with a suddenness that sent a pain like a knife thrust through the wounded shoulder. The instinct for self-preservation was already at work in him. He fought his left arm free from the rope that pressed it to his side, and dived toward the figure at the end of the rope. Even as he plunged, he found time to be surprised that no revolver shot echoed through the night, and to know that the reason was because his enemies preferred to do their work in silence.

The man upon whom he leaped gave a startled oath and stumbled backward over a root.

Fraser, his hand already upon the man's throat, went down too. Upon him charged men from all directions. In the shadows, they must have hampered each other, for the ranger, despite his wound-- his shoulder was screaming with pain-- got to his knees, and slowly from his knees to his feet, shaking the clinging bodies from him.

Wrenching his other hand from under the rope, he fought them back as a hurt grizzly does the wolf pack gathered for the kill. None but a very powerful man could ever have reached his feet. None less agile and sinewy than a panther could have beaten them back as at first he did. They fought in grim silence, yet the grove was full of the sounds of battle. The heavy breathing, the beat of shifting feet, the soft impact of flesh striking flesh, the thud of falling bodies-- of these the air was vocal. Yet, save for the gasps of sudden pain, no man broke silence save once.

"The snake'll get away yet!" a hoarse voice cried, not loudly, but with an emphasis that indicated strong conviction.

Impossible as it seemed, the ranger might have done it but for an accident. In the struggle, the rope had slipped to a point just below his knees. Fighting his way down the hill, foot by foot, the Texan felt the rope tighten. One of his attackers flung himself against his chest and he was tripped. The pack was on him again. Here there was more light, and though for a time the mass swayed back and forth, at last they hammered him down by main strength. He was bound hand and foot, and dragged back to the grove.

They faced their victim, panting deeply from their exertions. Fraser looked round upon the circle of distorted faces, and stopped at one. Seen now, with the fury and malignancy of its triumph painted upon it, the face was one to bring bad dreams.

The lieutenant, his chest still laboring heavily, racked with the torture of his torn shoulder, looked into that face out of the only calm eyes in the group.

"So it's you, Struve?"

"Yes, it's me-- me and my friends."

"I've been looking for you high and low."

"Well, you've found me," came the immediate exultant answer.

"I reckon I'm indebted to you for this." Fraser moved his shoulder slightly.

"You'll owe me a heap more than that before the night's over."

"Your intentions were good then, I expect. Being shy a trigger finger spoils a man's aim."

"Not always."

"Didn't like to risk another shot from Bald Knob, eh? Must be some discouraging to hit only once out of three times at three hundred yards, and a scratch at that."

The convict swore. "I'll not miss this time, Mr. Lieutenant."

"You'd better not, or I'll take you back to the penitentiary where I put you before."

"You'll never put another man there, you meddling spy," Struve cried furiously.

"I'm not so sure of that. I know what you've got against me, but I should like to know what kick your friends have coming," the ranger retorted.

"You may have mine, right off the reel, Mr. Fraser, or whatever you call yourself. You came into this valley with a lie on your lips. We played you for a friend, and you played us for suckers. All the time you was in a deal with the sheriff for you know what. I hate a spy like I do a rattlesnake."

It was the man Yorky that spoke. Steve's eyes met his.

"So I'm a spy, am I?"

"You know best."

"Anyhow, you're going to shoot me first, and find out afterward?"

"Wrong guess. We're going to hang you." Struve, unable to keep back longer his bitter spleen, hissed this at him.

"Yes, that's about your size, Struve. You can crow loud now, when the odds are six to one, with the one unarmed and tied at that. But what I want to know is-- are you playing fair with your friends? Have you told them that every man in to-night's business will hang, sure as fate? Have you told them of those cowardly murders you did in Arizona and Texas? Have you told them that your life is forfeit, anyway? Do they know you're trying to drag them into your troubles? No? You didn't tell them that. I'm surprised at you, Struve."

"My name's Johnson."

"Not in Arizona, it isn't. Wolf Struve it is there, wanted for murder and other sundries." He turned swiftly from him to his confederates. "You fools, you're putting your heads into a noose. He's in already, and wants you in, too. Test him. Throw the end of that rope over the limb, and stand back, while he pulls me up alone. He daren't-- not for his life, he daren't. He knows that whoever pulls on that rope hangs himself as surely as he hangs me."

The men looked at each other, and at Struve. Were they being led into trouble to pay this man's scores off for him? Suspicion stirred uneasily in them.

"That's right, too. Let Johnson pull him up," Slim Leroy said sullenly.

"Sure. You've got more at stake than we have. It's up to you, Johnson," Yorky agreed.

"That's right," a third chipped in.

"We'll all pull together, boys," Struve insinuated. "It's only a bluff of his. Don't let him scare you off."

"He ain't scaring me off any," declared Yorky. "He's a spy, and he's getting what is coming to him. But you're a stranger too, Johnson. I don't trust you any-- not any farther than I can see you, my friend. I'll stand for being an aider and abettor, but I reckon if there's any hanging to be done you'll have to be the sheriff," replied Yorky stiffly.

Struve turned his sinister face on one and another of them. His lips were drawn back, so that the wolfish teeth gleamed in the moonlight. He felt himself being driven into a trap, from which there was no escape. He dared not let Fraser go with his life, for he knew that, sooner or later, the ranger would run him to earth, and drag him back to the punishment that was awaiting him in the South. Nor did he want to shoulder the responsibility of murdering this man before five witnesses.

Came the sound of running footsteps.

"What's that?" asked Slim nervously.

"Where are you, Steve?" called a voice.

"Here," the ranger shouted back.

A moment later Dick France burst into the group. "What's doing?" he panted.

The ranger laughed hardily. "Nothing, Dick. Nothing at all. Some of the boys had notions of a necktie party, but they're a little shy of sand. Have you met Mr. Struve, Dick? I know you're acquainted with the others, Mr. Struve is from Yuma. An old friend of mine. Fact is, I induced him to locate at Yuma."

Dick caught at the rope, but Yorky flung him roughly back.

"This ain't your put in, France," he said. "It's up to Johnson." And to the latter: "Get busy, if you're going to."

"He's a spy on you-all, just the same as he is on me," blurted the convict.

"That's a lie, Struve," pronounced the lieutenant evenly. "I'm going to take you back with me, but I've got nothing against these men. I want to announce right now, no matter who tells a different story, that I haven't lost any Squaw Creek raiders and I'm not hunting any."

"You hear? He came into this valley after me."

"Wrong again, Struve. I didn't know you were here. But I know now, and I serve notice that I'm going to take you back with me, dead or alive. That's what I'm paid for, and that's what I'm going to do."

It was amazing to hear this man, with a rope round his neck, announce calmly what he was going to do to the man who had only to pull that rope to send him into eternity. The very audacity of it had its effect.

Slim spoke up. "I don't reckon we better go any farther with this thing, Yorky."

"No, I don't reckon you had," cut in Dick sharply. "I'll not stand for it."

Again the footsteps of a running man reached them. It was Siegfried. He plunged into the group like a wild bull, shook the hair out of his eyes, and planted himself beside Fraser. With one backward buffet of his great arm he sent Johnson heels over head. He caught Yorky by the shoulders, strong man though the latter was, and shook him till his teeth rattled, after which he flung him reeling a dozen yards to the ground. The Norwegian was reaching for Dick when Fraser stopped him.

"That's enough of a clean-up right now, Sig. Dick butted in like you to help me," he explained.

"The durned coyotes!" roared the big Norseman furiously, leaping at Leroy and tossing him over his head as an enraged bull does. He turned upon the other three, shaking his tangled mane, but they were already in flight.

"I'll show them. I'll show them," he kept saying as he came back to the man he had rescued.

"You've showed them plenty, Sig. Cut out the rough house before you maim some of these gents who didn't invite you to their party."

The ranger felt the earth sway beneath him as he spoke. His wound had been torn loose in the fight, and was bleeding. Limply he leaned against the tree for support.

It was at this moment he caught sight of Arlie and Briscoe as they ran up. Involuntarily he straightened almost jauntily. The girl looked at him with that deep, eager look of fear he had seen before, and met that unconquerable smile of his.

The rope was still round his neck and the coat was stripped from his back. He was white to the lips, and she could see he could scarce stand, even with the support of the pine trunk. His face was bruised and battered. His hat was gone; and hidden somewhere in his crisp short hair was a cut from which blood dripped to the forehead. The bound arm had been torn from its bandages in the unequal battle he had fought. But for all his desperate plight he still carried the invincible look that nothing less than death can rob some men of.

The fretted moonlight, shifting with the gentle motion of the foliage above, fell full upon him now and showed a wet, red stain against the white shirt. Simultaneously outraged nature collapsed, and he began to sink to the ground.

Arlie gave a little cry and ran forward. Before he reached the ground he had fainted; yet scarcely before she was on her knees beside him with his head in her arms.

"Bring water, Dick, and tell Doc Lee to come at once. He'll be in the back room smoking. Hurry!" She looked fiercely round upon the men assembled. "I think they have killed him. Who did this? Was it you, Yorky? Was it you that murdered him?"

"I bane t'ink it take von hoondred of them to do it," said Siegfried. "Dat fallar, Johnson, he bane at the bottom of it."

"Then why didn't you kill him? Aren't you Steve's friend? Didn't he save your life?" she panted, passion burning in her beautiful eyes.

Siegfried nodded. "I bane Steve's friend, yah! And Ay bane kill Johnson eef Steve dies."

Briscoe, furious at this turn of the tide which had swept Arlie's sympathies back to his enemy, followed Struve as he sneaked deeper into the shadow of the trees. The convict was nursing a sprained wrist when Jed reached him.

"What do you think you've been trying to do, you sap-headed idiot?" Jed demanded. "Haven't you sense enough to choose a better time than one when the whole settlement is gathered to help him? And can't you ever make a clean job of it, you chuckle-minded son of a greaser?"

Struve turned, snarling, on him. "That'll be enough from you, Briscoe. I've stood about all I'm going to stand just now."

"You'll stand for whatever I say," retorted Jed. "You've cooked your goose in this valley by to-night's fool play. I'm the only man that can pull you through. Bite on that fact, Mr. Struve, before you unload your bile on me."

The convict's heart sank. He felt it to be the truth. The last thing he had heard was Siegfried's threat to kill him.

Whether Fraser lived or died he was in a precarious position and he knew it.

"I know you're my friend, Jed," he whined. "I'll do what you say. Stand by me and I'll sure work with you."

"Then if you take my advice you'll sneak down to the corral, get your horse, and light out for the run. Lie there till I see you."

"And Siegfried?"

"The Swede won't trouble you unless this Texan dies. I'll send you word in time if he does."

Later a skulking shadow sneaked into the corral and out again. Once out of hearing, it leaped to the back of the horse and galloped wildly into the night.