Part II. The Girl of Lost Valley
Chapter XIV. Howard Explains
 

Two horsemen rode into Millikan's Draw and drew up in front of the big ranch house. To the girl who stepped to the porch to meet them they gave friendly greeting. One of them asked:

"How're things coming, Arlie?"

"Better and better every day, Dick. Yesterday the doctor said he was out of danger."

"It's been a tough fight for Steve," the other broke in. "Proper nursing is what pulled him through. Doc says so."

"Did he say that, Alec? I'll always think it was doc. He fought for that life mighty hard, boys."

Alec Howard nodded: "Doc Lee's the stuff. Here he comes now, talking of angels."

Doctor Lee dismounted and grinned. "Which of you lads is she making love to now?"

Arlie laughed. "He can't understand that I don't make love to anybody but him," she explained to the younger men.

"She never did to me, doc," Dick said regretfully.

"No, we were just talking about you, doc."

"Fire ahead, young woman," said the doctor, with assumed severity. "I'm here to defend myself now."

"Alec was calling you an angel, and I was laughing at him," said the girl demurely.

"An angel-- huh!" he snorted.

"I never knew an angel that chewed tobacco, or one that could swear the way you do when you're mad," continued Arlie.

"I don't reckon your acquaintance with angels is much greater than mine, Miss Arlie Dillon. How's the patient?"

"He's always wanting something to eat, and he's cross as a bear."

"Good for him! Give him two weeks now and he'll be ready to whip his weight in wild cats."

The doctor disappeared within, and presently they could hear his loud, cheerful voice pretending to berate the patient.

Arlie sat down on the top step of the porch.

"Boys, I don't know what I would have done if he had died. It would have been all my fault. I had no business to tell him the names of you boys that rode in the raid, and afterward to tell you that I told him," she accused herself.

"No, you had no business to tell him, though it happens he's safe as a bank vault," Howard commented.

"I don't know how I came to do it," the girl continued. "Jed had made me suspicious of him, and then I found out something fine he had done for me. I wanted him to know I trusted him. That was the first thing I thought of, and I told it. He tried to stop me, but I'm such an impulsive little fool."

"We all make breaks, Arlie. You'll not do it again, anyhow," France comforted.

Doctor Lee presently came out and pronounced that the wounded man was doing well. "Wants to see you boys. Don't stay more than half an hour. If they get in your way, sweep 'em out, Arlie."

The cowpunchers entered the sick room with the subdued, gingerly tread of professional undertakers.

"I ain't so had as that yet, boys," the patient laughed. "You're allowed to speak above a whisper. Doc thinks I'll last till night, mebbe, if I'm careful."

They told him all the gossip of the range-- how young Ford had run off with Sallie Laundon and got married to her down at the Butte; how Siegfried had gone up and down the valley swearing he would clean out Jack Rabbit Run if Steve died; how Johnson had had another row with Jed and had chosen to take water rather than draw. Both of his visitors, however, had something on their minds they found some difficulty in expressing.

Alec Howard finally broached it.

"Arlie told you the names of some of the boys that were in the Squaw Creek sheep raid. She made a mistake in telling you anything, but we'll let that go in the discard. It ain't necessary that you should know the names of the others, but I'm going to tell you one of them, Steve."

"No, I don't want to know."

"This is my say-so. His name is Alec Howard."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Alec. I don't know why you have told me."

"Because I want you to know the facts of that raid, Steve. No killing was on the program. That came about in a way none of us could foresee."

"This is how it was, Steve," explained Dick. "Word came that Campeau was going to move his sheep into the Squaw Creek district. Sheep never had run there. It was understood the range there was for our cattle. We had set a dead line, and warned them not to cross it. Naturally, it made us sore when we heard about Campeau.

"So some of us gathered together hastily and rode over. Our intentions were declared. We meant to drive the sheep back and patrol the dead line. It was solemnly agreed that there was to be no shooting, not even of sheep."

The story halted here for a moment before Howard took it up again. "Things don't always come out the way you figure them. We didn't anticipate any trouble. We outnumbered them two to one. We had the advantage of the surprise. You couldn't guess that for anything but a cinch, could you?"

"And it turned out different?"

"One of us stumbled over a rock as we were creeping forward. Campeau heard us and drew. The first shot came from them. Now, I'm going to tell you something you're to keep under your own hat. It will surprise you a heap when I tell you that one man on our side did all the damage. He was at the haid of the line, and it happens he is a dead shot. He is liable to rages, when he acts like a crazy man. He got one now. Before we could put a stopper on him, he had killed Campeau and Jennings, and wounded the herders. The whole thing was done before you could wink an eye six times. For just about that long we stood there like roped calves. Then we downed the man in his tracks, slammed him with the butt of a revolver."

Howard stopped and looked at the ranger before he spoke again. His voice was rough and hoarse.

"Steve, I've seen men killed before, but I never saw anything so awful as that. It was just like they had been struck by lightning for suddenness. There was that devil scattering death among them and the poor fellows crumpling up like rabbits. I tell you every time I think of it the thing makes me sick."

The ranger nodded. He understood. The picture rose before him of a man in a Berserk rage, stark mad for the moment, playing Destiny on that lonely, moonlit hill. The face his instinct fitted to the irresponsible murderer was that of Jed Briscoe. Somehow he was sure of that, beyond the shadow of a doubt. His imagination conceived that long ride back across the hills, the deep agonies of silence, the fierce moments of vindictive accusation. No doubt for long the tug of conscience was with them in all their waking hours, for these men were mostly simple-minded cattlemen caught in the web of evil chance.

"That's how it was, Steve. In as long as it takes to empty a Winchester, we were every one of us guilty of a murder we'd each have given a laig to have stopped. We were all in it, all tied together, because we had broke the law to go raiding in the first place. Technically, the man that emptied that rifle wasn't any more guilty than us poor wretches that stood frozen there while he did it. Put it that we might shave the gallows, even then the penitentiary would bury us. There was only one thing to do. We agreed to stand together, and keep mum."

"Is that why you're telling me, Alec?" Fraser smiled.

"We ain't telling you, not legally," the cow-puncher answered coolly. "If you was ever to say we had, Dick and me would deny it. But we ain't worrying any about you telling it. You're a clam, and we know it. No, we're telling you, son, because we want you to know about how it was. The boys didn't ride out to do murder. They rode out simply to drive the sheep off their range."

The Texan nodded. "That's about how I figured it. I'm glad you told me, boys. I reckon I don't need to tell you I'm padlocked in regard to this."

Arlie came to the door and looked in. "It's time you boys were going. Doc said a half hour"

"All right, Arlie," responded Dick. "So-long, Steve. Be good, you old pie eater."

After they had gone, the Texan lay silent for a long time. He understood perfectly their motive in telling him the story. They had not compromised themselves legally, since a denial would have given them two to one in the matter of witnesses. But they wished him to see that, morally, every man but one who rode on that raid was guiltless of the Squaw Creek murders.

Arlie came in presently, and sat down near the window with some embroidery.

"Did the boys tire you?" she asked, noting his unusual silence.

"No. I was thinking about what they told me. They were giving me the inside facts of the Squaw Creek raid."

She looked up in surprise. "They were?" A little smile began to dimple the corners of her mouth. "That's funny, because they had just got through forgiving me for what I told you."

"What they told me was how the shooting occurred."

"I don't know anything about that. When I told you their names I was only telling what I had heard people whisper. That's all I knew."

"You've been troubled because your friends were in this, haven't you? You hated to think it of them, didn't you?" he asked.

"Yes. It has troubled me a lot."

"Don't let it trouble you any more. One man was responsible for all the bloodshed. He went mad and saw red for half a minute. Before the rest could stop him, the slaughter was done. The other boys aren't guilty of that, any more than you or I."

"Oh, I'm glad-- I'm glad," she cried softly. Then, looking up quickly to him: "Who was the man?" she asked.

"I don't know. It is better that neither of us should know that."

"I'm glad the boys told you. It shows they trust you."

"They figure me out a white man," he answered carelessly.

"Ah! That's where I made my mistake." She looked at him bravely, though the color began to beat into her cheeks beneath the dusky tan. "Yet I knew it all the time-- in my heart. At least, after I had given myself time to think it over. I knew you couldn't be that. If I had given you time to explain-- but I always think too late."

His eyes, usually so clear and steely, softened at her words. "I'm satisfied if you knew-- in your heart."

"I meant----" she began, with a flush.

"Now, don't spoil it, please," he begged.

Under his steady, half-smiling gaze, her eyes fell. Two weeks ago she had been a splendid young creature, as untaught of life as one of the wild forest animals and as unconsciously eager for it. But there had come a change over her, a birth of womanhood from that night when she had stood between Stephen Fraser and death. No doubt she would often regret it, but she had begun to live more deeply. She could never go back to the care-free days when she could look all men in the face with candid, girlish eyes. The time had come to her, as it must to all sensitive of life, when she must drink of it, whether she would or no.

"Because I'd rather you would know it in your heart than in your mind," he said.

Something sweet and terrifying, with the tingle and warmth of rare wine in it, began to glow in her veins. Eyes shy, eager, frightened, met his for an instant. Then she remembered the other girl. Something hard as steel ran through her. She turned on her heel and left the room.