Part II. The Girl of Lost Valley
Chapter XVI. The Wolf Bites
 

Steve came drowsily to consciousness from confused dreams of a cattle stampede and the click of rifles in the hands of enemies who had the drop on him. The rare, untempered sunshine of the Rockies poured into his window from a world outside, wonderful as the early morning of creation. The hillside opposite was bathed miraculously in a flood of light, in which grasshoppers fiddled triumphantly their joy in life. The sources of his dreams discovered themselves in the bawl of thirsty cattle and the regular clicking of a windmill.

A glance at his watch told him that it was six o'clock.

"Time to get up, Steve," he told himself, and forthwith did.

He chose a rough crash towel, slipped on a pair of Howard's moccasins, and went down to the river through an ambient that had the sparkle and exhilaration of champagne. The mountain air was still finely crisp with the frost, in spite of the sun warmth that was beginning to mellow it. Flinging aside the Indian blanket he had caught up before leaving the cabin, he stood for an instant on the bank, a human being with the physical poise, compactness, and lithe-muscled smoothness of a tiger.

Even as he plunged a rifle cracked. While he dived through the air, before the shock of the icy water tingled through him, he was planning his escape. The opposite bank rose ten feet above the stream. He kept under the water until he came close to this, then swam swiftly along it with only his head showing, so as to keep him out of sight as much as possible.

Half a stone's throw farther the bank fell again to the water's edge, the river having broadened and grown shallow, as mountain creeks do. The ranger ran, stooping, along the bank, till it afforded him no more protection, then dashed across the stony-bottomed stream to the shelter of the thick aspens beyond.

Just as he expected, a shot rang from far up the mountainside. In another instant he was safe in the foliage of the young aspens.

In the sheer exhilaration of his escape he laughed aloud.

"Last show to score gone, Mr. Struve. I figured it just right. He waited too long for his first shot. Then the bank hid me. He wasn't expecting to see me away down the stream, so he hadn't time to sight his second one."

Steve wound his way in and out among the aspens, working toward the tail of them, which ran up the hill a little way and dropped down almost to the back door of the cabin. Upon this he was presently pounding.

Howard let him in. He had a revolver in his hand, the first weapon he could snatch up.

"You durned old idiot! It's a wonder you ain't dead three ways for Sunday," he shouted joyfully at sight of him. "Ain't I told you 'steen times to do what bathin' you got to do, right here in the shack?"

The Texan laughed again. Naked as that of Father Adam, his splendid body was glowing with the bath and the exercise.

"He's ce'tainly the worst chump ever, Alec. Had me in sight all the way down to the creek, but waited till I wasn't moving. Reckon he was nervous. Anyhow, he waited just one-tenth of a second too late. Shot just as I leaned forward for my dive. He gave me a free hair-cut though."

A swath showed where the bullet had mowed a furrow of hair so close that in one place it had slightly torn the scalp.

"He shot again, didn't he?"

"Yep. I swam along the far bank, so that he couldn't get at me, and crossed into the aspens. He got another chance as I was crossing, but he had to take it on the fly, and missed."

The cattleman surveyed the hillside cautiously through the front window. "I reckon he's pulled his freight, most likely. But we'll stay cooped for a while, on the chance. You're the luckiest cuss I ever did see. More lives than a cat."

Howard laid his revolver down within reach, and proceeded to light a fire in the stove, from which rose presently the pleasant odors of aromatic coffee and fried ham and eggs.

"Come and get it, Steve," said Howard, by way of announcing breakfast. "No, you don't. I'll take the window seat, and at that we'll have the curtain drawn."

They were just finishing breakfast when Siegfried cantered up.

"You bane ready, Steve?" he called in.

Howard appeared in the doorway. "Say, Sig, go down to the corral and saddle up Teddy for Steve, will you? Some of his friends have been potshotting at him again. No damage done, except to my feelings, but there's nothing like being careful."

Siegfried's face darkened. "Ay bane like for know who it vas?"

Howard laughed. "Now, if you'll tell Steve that he'll give you as much as six bits, Sig. He's got notions, but they ain't worth any more than yours or mine. Say, where you boys going to-day? I've a notion to go along."

"Oh, just out for a little pasear," Steve answered casually. "Thought you were going to work on your south fence to-day."

"Well, I reckon I better. It sure needs fixing. You lads take good care of yourselves. I don't need to tell you not to pass anywhere near the run, Sig," he grinned, with the manner of one giving a superfluous warning.

Fraser looked at Siegfried, with a smile in his eyes. "No, we'll not pass the run to-day, Alec."

A quarter of an hour later they were in the saddle and away. Siegfried did not lead his friend directly up the caņon that opened into Jack Rabbit Run, but across the hills to a pass, which had to be taken on foot. They left the horses picketed on a grassy slope, and climbed the faint trail that went steeply up the bowlder-strewn mountain.

The ascent was so steep that the last bit had to be done on all fours. It was a rock face, though by no means an impossible one, since projecting ledges and knobs offered a foothold all the way. From the summit, the trail edged its way down so precipitously that twice fallen pines had to be used as ladders for the descent.

As soon as they were off the rocks, the big blonde gave the signal for silence. "Ay bane t'ink we might meet up weeth some one," he whispered, and urged Steve to follow him as closely as possible.

It was half an hour later that Sig pointed out a small clearing ahead of them. "Cabin's right oop on the edge of the aspens. See it?"

The ranger nodded assent.

"Ay bane go down first an' see how t'ings look."

When the Norwegian entered the cabin, he saw two men seated at a table, playing seven up. The one facing him was Tommie, the cook; the other was an awkward heavy-set fellow, whom he knew for the man he wanted, even before the scarred, villainous face was twisted toward him.

Struve leaped instantly to his feet, overturning his chair in his haste. He had not met the big Norseman since the night he had attempted to hang Fraser.

"Ay bane not shoot yuh now," Siegfried told him.

"Right sure of that, are you?" the convict snarled, his hand on his weapon. "If you've got any doubts, now's the time to air them, and we'll settle this thing right now."

"Ay bane not shoot, Ay tell you."

Tommie, who had ducked beneath the table at the prospect of trouble, now cautiously emerged.

"I ain't lost any pills from either of your guns, gents," he explained, with a face so laughably and frankly frightened that both of the others smiled.

"Have a drink, Siegfried," suggested Struve, by way of sealing the treaty. "Tommie, get out that bottle."

"Ay bane t'ink Ay look to my horse first," the Norwegian answered, and immediately left by way of the back door not three minutes before Jed Briscoe entered by the front one.

Jed shut the door behind him and looked at the convict.

"Well?" he demanded.

Struve faced him sullenly, without answering.

"Tommie, vamos," hinted Briscoe gently, and as soon as the cook had disappeared, he repeated his monosyllable: "Well?"

"It didn't come off," muttered the other sulkily.

"Just what I expected. Why not?"

Struve broke into a string of furious oaths. "Because I missed him-- missed him twice, when he was standing there naked before me. He was coming down to the creek to take a bath, and I waited till he was close. I had a sure bead on him, and he dived just as I fired. I got another chance, when he was running across, farther down, and, by thunder, I missed again."

Jed laughed, and the sound of it was sinister.

"Couldn't hit the side of a house, could you? You're nothing but a cheap skate, a tin-horn gambler, run down at the heels. All right. I'm through with you. Lieutenant Fraser, from Texas, can come along and collect whenever he likes. I'll not protect a false alarm like you any longer."

Struve looked at him, as a cornered wolf might have done. "What will you do?"

"I'll give you up to him. I'll tell him to come in and get you. I'll show him the way in, you white-livered cur!" bullied the cattleman, giving way to one of his rages.

"You'd better not," snarled the convict. "Not if you want to live."

As they stood facing each other in a panting fury the door opened, to let in Siegfried and the ranger.

Jed's rage against Struve died on the spot. He saw his enemy, the ranger, before him, and leaped to the conclusion that he had come to this hidden retreat to run him down for the Squaw Creek murders. Instantly, his hand swept to the hilt of his revolver.

That motion sealed his doom. For Struve knew that Siegfried had brought the ranger to capture him, and suspected in the same flash that Briscoe was in on the betrayal. Had not the man as good as told him so, not thirty seconds before? He supposed that Jed was drawing to kill or cover him, and, like a flash of lightning, unscabbarded and fired.

"You infernal Judas, I'll get you anyhow," he cried.

Jed dropped his weapon, and reeled back against the wall, where he hung for a moment, while the convict pumped a second and a third bullet into his body. Briscoe was dead before Fraser could leap forward and throw his arms round the man who had killed him.

Between them, they flung Struve to the ground, and disarmed him. The convict's head had struck as he went down, and it was not for some little time that he recovered fully from his daze. When he did his hands were tied behind him.

"I didn't go for to kill him," he whimpered, now thoroughly frightened at what he had done. "You both saw it, gentlemen. You did, lieutenant. So did you, Sig. It was self-defense. He drew on me. I didn't go to do it."

Fraser was examining the dead man's wounds. He looked up, and said to his friend: "Nothing to do for him, Sig. He's gone."

"I tell you, I didn't mean to do it," pleaded Struve. "Why, lieutenant, that man has been trying to get me to ambush you for weeks. I'll swear it." The convict was in a panic of terror, ready to curry favor with the man whom he held his deadliest enemy. "Yes, lieutenant, ever since you came here. He's been egging me on to kill you."

"And you tried it three times?"

"No, sir." He pointed vindictively at the dead man, lying face up on the floor. "It was him that ambushed you this morning. I hadn't a thing to do with it."

"Don't lie, you coward."

They carried the body to the next room and put it on a bed. Tommie was dispatched on a fast horse for help.

Late in the afternoon he brought back with him Doctor Lee, and half an hour after sunset Yorky and Slim galloped up. They were for settling the matter out of hand by stringing the convict Struve up to the nearest pine, but they found the ranger so very much on the spot that they reconsidered.

"He's my prisoner, gentlemen. I came in here and took him-- that is, with the help of my friend Siegfried. I reckon if you mill it over a spell, you'll find you don't want him half as bad as we do," he said mildly.

"What's the matter with all of us going in on this thing, lieutenant?" proposed Yorky.

"I never did see such a fellow for necktie parties as you are, Yorky. Not three weeks ago, you was invitin' me to be chief mourner at one of your little affairs, and your friend Johnson was to be master of ceremonies. Now you've got the parts reversed. No, I reckon we'll have to disappoint you this trip."

"What are you going to do with him?" asked Yorky, with plain dissatisfaction.

"I'm going to take him down to Gimlet Butte. Arizona and Wyoming and Texas will have to scrap it out for him there." "When, you get him there," Yorky said significantly.

"Yes, when I get him there," answered the Texan blandly, carefully oblivious of the other's implication.

The moon was beginning to show itself over a hill before the Texan and Siegfried took the road with their captive. Fraser had carelessly let drop a remark to the effect that they would spend the night at the Dillon ranch.

His watch showed eleven o'clock before they reached the ranch, but he pushed on without turning in and did not stop until they came to the Howard place.

They roused Alec from sleep, and he cooked them a post-midnight supper, after which he saddled his cow pony, buckled on his belt, and took down his old rifle from the rack.

"I'll jog along with you lads and see the fun," he said.

Their prisoner had not eaten. The best he could do was to gulp down some coffee, for he was in a nervous chill of apprehension. Every gust of wind seemed to carry to him the patter of pursuit. The hooting of an owl sent a tremor through him.

"Don't you reckon we had better hurry?" he had asked with dry lips more than once, while the others were eating.

He asked it again as they were setting off.

Howard looked him over with rising disgust, without answering. Presently, he remarked, apropos of nothing: "Are all your Texas wolves coyotes, Steve?"

He would have liked to know at least that it was a man whose life he was protecting, even though the fellow was also a villain. But this crumb of satisfaction was denied him.